Shortage occupation list 2020: call for evidence - our response

Our response to the UK Migration Advisory Committee call for evidence on the shortage occupation list.

Key Workers in Scotland

443. There are 924,600 key workers in Scotland, 34.7 % of all people in employment. Non-UK (EU and non-EU) nationals account for 7.5% (69,000) of all key workers. A key worker, or critical worker, is a public sector or private sector employee who is considered to provide an essential service in our response to the COVID-19 crisis in the UK.

444. Of all non-UK nationals employed in key sectors;

  • 29,300 (42.5%) work in health and social care;
  • 16,600 (24.0%) work in food and necessary goods,
  • 5,800 (8.4%) work in education.

445. The below table shows a full breakdown of key workers by sector, using the ONS Key Worker definitions:

Table 11: Key workers in Scotland by category
Key worker category Number of workers % of total key workers
Health & social care 320,000 35%
Education & childcare 160,000 17%
Food & necessary goods 140,000 15%
Utilities and communication 140,000 15%
Public safety & national security 60,000 6%
Transport 60,000 6%
Public services 40,000 4%
National & Local Government 20,000 2%

Source: Q4 2019 Labour Force Survey

446. Nearly half of key workers are employed in the public sector. This proportion differs by key worker category, but accounts for the majority of key workers in education and childcare (>80%), public safety and national security (~80%) and national and local government (100%). Over 60% of health and social care key workers are public sector employees. Furthermore, the majority are woman and a third of key workers are part time.[145]

447. In their report on salary thresholds and a points-based immigration system,[146] the MAC themselves noted that women and part-time workers are most likely to be disadvantaged by the future immigration system, as less likely to earn the higher salaries necessary. Therefore the future system is likely to exacerbate this imbalance and increase the shortage.

448. Considering the skill level of key workers similarly shows how the future system will create shortages in these sectors. While 70.9% of the employed population overall have A-level/Higher-level qualifications or above in Scotland
(RQF 3), only 48.5% of the food and necessary goods workforce do. These roles therefore fall below the minimum required RQF 3 level and would not be eligible for the SOL, nor entry to the UK.

449. EU-born workers are also overrepresented among key workers in the manufacturing sector (22%), scientific and professional sector (11%) and in the transport and storage industries (11%).

450. Further, just over half of UK-born and foreign born key workers are in roles requiring occupation RQF 3 and above (UK wide).

451. About two-thirds of key workers born in countries that joined the EU after 2004 and 55% of those born in South Asia (except India) are in so called "low-skilled" roles. Women are also more likely to be "low-skilled", representing two-thirds of this labour force.

452. While Non-UK nationals only form about 10% of the UK labour force overall they are over-represented among key workers such as health professionals (23%), nurses and midwives (19%) basic security jobs (21%) or care jobs (16%). Gender imbalance is particularly pronounced among nurses and midwives and care workers, where a majority of foreign born key workers are women.

453. Some sectors are more dependent on key workers. The areas with the highest shares of key workers are health (81%), social work and residential care (65%), and education (58%). Overall, migrants form 17% of this key workforce in the UK but the share of foreign-born workers in higher in specific sectors of the economy.[147]

454. Health, social work and residential care workers are most likely to be affected by COVID-19 themselves and therefore the workforce will need to be supplemented as individuals are required to take time off work.

Impact of the future immigration system on key workers

455. The proposals for the new immigration system exclude all of the above key workers from entering the UK in the future.

456. 58% of EU born and 49% of non-EU born full-time key workers aged 25 to 64 would not qualify for a Tier 2 visa under the proposals for the future immigration system. This higher share for EU workers is to be expected given that EU citizens have not been subject to significant restrictions on moving to and working in the UK and are over-represented in roles that are considered "low-skilled" (for more information, see the Migration Observatory briefing Migrants in the UK labour market: an overview).[148]

457. While those applying to jobs on the SOL might qualify with lower salaries, individuals still must meet the minimum threshold of £20,480, of which many jobs will not qualify.

458. Furthermore the skills requirement, even lowered to RQF 3, is a crucial factor determining eligibility; that is, changing the salary requirements without changing the skill requirement would have a relatively limited impact.

459. Almost half of non-EU born key workers would not have qualified for a visa under the new system, although they have been subject to harsher salary and skills requirements than those being proposed for the future system. This highlights that work visas are not the only route through which non-EU citizens have entered the UK labour market: many of these non-EU born key workers may have entered the UK as family members or students.[149]

460. Key workers are also more likely to be from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME) (14% vs 12% ); be female (58% vs 48%); or born outside the UK (18% vs 11%); and paid less than the average UK income.

461. The IFS found that 33% of key workers earn £10 or less an hour (28% in non-key sectors). The median salary earned by a key worker (£12.26 per house in 2019) is 8% less than the £13.26 earned by median earners not in key roles.

462. However there exists much variation between sectors. Roles in food processing and social care are dominated by lower wages and lower qualification requirements. 30% of workers in the meat processing sector were born outwith the UK, as were a quarter of health and social care workers.

463. These differences translate into significant variation in key worker wages: the median earner in the food sector earned £8.59 per hour last year, 30% less than the median key worker. But the median earner in key professional services - such as justice or journalism - earned more than half as much again as the average key worker, partly reflecting that nearly 80% of workers in those sectors have university degrees.

464. The gap between key and non-essential roles has been growing over time. After taking into account differences in the characteristics of key and non-essential employees, average wages for key workers last year were around 9% lower than for a similar non-essential employee. After nearly a decade of wage restraint in sectors such as education and public order, that is nearly twice as large.


465. Various governments across Europe (Germany, France, Spain) and the Americas (few US states, Argentina, Colombia) have relaxed their immigration rules to allow key workers from refugee and migrant communities to work during COVID-19 pandemic. For example, health services in France can now recruit unverified refugee graduates qualified as doctors, dentists or pharmacists in their home countries; groups of doctors from China, Albania, Cuba and Russia have travelled to Italy to work in their COVID-19 response; Germany are fast-tracking foreign doctors; and Argentina and Colombia are employing Venezuelan refugee medical professionals.

466. In the UK, nearly 3,000 visas for NHS workers have been extended by 12 months, to allow them to continue to support the COVID-19 response: but many more qualified migrants are still unable to practice.

467. Notably, while many health staff are included in this, the social care sector is still excluded from the UK Government visa extension scheme.

Hard to Fill Occupations: Other Countries

468. The EAG report[150] explores how population trends can create three types of 'shortage' and the role migration can play in addressing these:

  • Aggregate Shortage, associated with overall labour shortages and high dependency ratios;
  • Sectoral shortages, linked to specific occupations or sectors;
  • Geographic shortages in particular areas, typically post-industrial, remote and rural communities.

469. Five international case studies are analysed to understand how the design of each country's immigration system confronts demographic shortages and classifies them across two features:

  • Programmes selecting entrants based on specific job vacancies or shortages (employer-based); or the characteristics of those being admitted (human capital based)
  • Programmes offering expansive rights and pathways to settlement, oriented towards promoting permanent stay; or they may restrict these rights, in order to encourage temporary migration and return.

470. The countries studied are:

  • Canada: Provincial Nominee Programs (PNPs)
  • Canada: Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program
  • Australia: State Specific and Regional Migration (SSRM) Scheme
  • Spain: Catalogue of 'Hard to Fill' Occupations (included differentiated SOLs for provinces)
  • Sweden: 2008 Liberalisation of Labour Migration Policy (The Public Employment Agency also compiles a list of shortage occupations, and work permits within this list are expedited).

471. The Canadian and Australian systems are explicitly oriented towards addressing aggregate, sectoral and geographic shortages (including through promoting settlement and retention in remote and rural areas).

472. The Spanish and Swedish systems, by contrast, are more geared towards aggregate and sectoral shortages; but, by building in more flexibility in terms of the occupations and sectors covered, and providing pathways to settlement, they can also contribute to addressing shortages in particular areas.

473. In terms of regional differentiation to meet geographic shortages, each case study is an example of either direct differentiation (distinct regional scheme; regional variation in national scheme criteria) or indirect differentiation (single national scheme covering occupation/skills relevant to regional shortages). However, it is noted that there may be greater challenges in enforcing such regional schemes due to their complexity.



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