May 2014

Scrapping the cap for professionals: A solution to the UK’s shortage of engineers?

With restrictive UK immigration policies in place, qualified workers in engineering and science disciplines are unable to remain in the country, or have difficulty returning post-education, to help close the growing gap between skilled candidates and unfilled job roles.

Alison Hutton / Newland Chase

It is no secret that the UK is experiencing a shortage of engineering professionals and graduates. The sector skills body, OPITO, reports that the UK oil and gas industry employs 440,000 people, with thousands of additional workers needed to fill core offshore roles in the coming years. The lack of transition training, to capture transferable skills, is understood to be the biggest short-term human resources issue for the industry, with indications that the problem lies in the mid-gap of maturity and experience.

The Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce Oil and Gas Survey, published in November 2013, reported that 68% of contractors and 75% of operators reported challenges in recruiting employees. In addition, the share of operators reporting retention problems in the last year increased sharply to 64% (previously 25%). This was particularly evident among the larger operators. Retention problems were reported by a smaller percentage of contractors in the latest survey, with 49% reporting difficulties, down slightly from 51% in 2012. Reasons for this include the increased competition within the sector for staff, with over 60% of contractors reporting this as a major reason for staff loss. Staff loss to other oil regions also increased, and points to the effect on employee availability of continued activity outside of the UK Continental Shelf.

The survey also reported that, overall, 81% of firms expect to increase the number of core staff over the next three years, ending in 2016, and strong anticipated labor demand was reported across operators and contractors, alike.

Contributing to this problem is the fact that many schoolchildren over the age of 16 do not choose to study math and sciences, which are required to progress into an engineering career.¹ This trend continues, despite the increasing number of initiatives being backed by OPITO, in attempts to encourage students to enter these subject areas. In June 2013, OPITO launched its revolutionary approach to tackling the critical need to attract thousands of new recruits into the oil and gas industry. This £1.2-million ($2-million) annual investment will result in the creation of the first-ever, national oil and gas skills agenda.

In addition, OPITO has undertaken the first fully comprehensive national oil and gas skills survey, capturing factual information across all sectors of the industry. The results are expected to be published in first-half 2014, and used to form the basis for a national skills strategy going forward.

Meanwhile, to meet current demand, many UK employers are hiring migrants in the key skill shortage areas. Immigrants already constitute 20% of engineering professionals in the UK, across sectors that include oil and gas extraction.²

In a recent article published by The Huffington Post, Sir James Dyson commented on the fact that still more engineers are required to fill the shortage in the UK, saying that the Home Office “should remove the immigration cap for the brightest and best, and make a special science and engineering visa.” He also went on to claim that the real problem is that 80% of post-graduate engineering positions at British universities are taken by students from outside the UK, but, in spite of this, the nation’s immigration system means that bright engineers and scientists cannot stay in-country when they finish their studies.³

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph on the same subject, Sir James called on the government to ease restrictions on overseas students remaining in the country after their courses have ended.⁴ He said that foreign science graduates were needed to “develop technology for export and relieve our skills shortage.”

In addition to OPITO, Oil & Gas UK, the nation’s offshore oil and gas representative organization, also recognizes the skills shortage, and laments the fact that the business environment could suffer, should the current immigration policies continue.

“The UK oil and gas industry continues to experience skills shortages, to the level that they are reported as one of the biggest challenges to business growth. The industry is working to pull every lever it can to address both short- and long-term requirements, and one of these is lobbying on immigration policy,” said Alix Thom, Oil & Gas UK’s employment and skills issues manager. “As a truly global industry, a more restrictive immigration policy in the UK could only be detrimental to our business.”


Under the Points-Based System now in place in the UK, there are two potential routes to bringing migrants into the UK. Where a migrant is already employed by the company overseas, and has been so for at least 12 months, they can usually qualify as an intra-company transfer. This process is reasonably straightforward, with the employer in the UK issuing the migrant with a Certificate of Sponsorship, and the migrant then using that certificate to apply for a visa in his or her home country.

However, things get more complicated, when the employee is not already working for the company overseas, and is essentially a new hire. In these circumstances, employers are required to sponsor the individual under Tier 2 General. For the year from April 6, 2014, to April 5, 2015, the Home Office will be granting 20,700 restricted Certificates of Sponsorship, available to Tier 2 General sponsors to bring new-hire migrants into the UK. To obtain one of these certificates, the employer is required to submit an application to UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) showing that the candidate meets all the necessary criteria relating to salary and skills, etc. This includes having met the Resident Labour Market Test (RLMT), where the role that the migrant is to fill in the UK is not deemed to be a skill shortage occupation.

Added to this is the fact that applications for a restricted Certificate of Sponsorship are only processed by UKVI within a certain timeframe each month, which can add up to four weeks onto the lead in time, if you miss the monthly deadline.

Fortunately, the occupation shortage list includes a great number of engineering job categories, Fig. 1. In fact, half of the 119 jobs listed on the agency’s Tier 2 shortage occupation list are engineering jobs.5 However, even where a role is on the list, the process for getting the migrant worker into the UK is still bureaucratic and time-consuming, because, while it is not necessary to run an RLMT, it is still necessary to apply for the restricted certificate via the monthly process.


Fig. 1. While many engineering job categories appear on the Shortage Occupation List, the bureaucratic process remains time-consuming (photo courtesy of BP).



For the most part, the Tier 2 route is now the only option open to UK employers, because the Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) visa category closed in 2012. However, some concessions can be made to migrants graduating from UK universities, as Tier 4 students and Tier 1 post-study workers (who were granted leave before the closure of this category) are not subject to the RLMT, nor do they have to show evidence that their profession is on the Shortage Occupation List. This also means that an in-country application by a Tier 4 student or Tier 1 post-study worker for a Tier 2 General visa is not subject to a cap or restriction. Therefore, if an overseas graduate is offered a role in the UK, and their employer has a sponsor license, there is a relatively straightforward route for them to be able to stay on and work in the UK. In this respect, Sir James’ assertion that overseas students cannot stay on in the UK after graduation is a little misleading.

The problem that many graduates face, however, is that they are not permitted (as they were before) to stay in the UK under the Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) category to look for a job. This means that an engineering graduate without a job offer straight after concluding his or her studies must exit the UK. Once outside of the UK, they are then subject to restrictions in coming back to the country to work as described above.

So, should the government introduce a special visa for science and engineering migrants? While the problem is, undoubtedly, a shortage of engineers in the UK, as mentioned above, the nation already has in place the Shortage Occupation List, which allows engineers to apply for a Tier 2 General visa, without having to go through the RLMT process. Although, in many scenarios, it would still be necessary to apply for a Restricted Certificate of Sponsorship, in reality the annual cap of 20,700 on Tier 2 General Restricted Certificates of Sponsorship has never actually been reached.6 It just, unfortunately, adds extra lead-in time to the process. Adding more engineering roles to the shortage list also would help.

Otherwise, the only other conceivable option is for the Home Office to re-introduce the post-study work visa, for science and engineering graduates, only. Indeed, this was done previously, in 2004, when the Science & Engineering Graduates visa was introduced, and was then transformed, eventually, into the Tier 1 post-study visa for all migrants graduating from UK universities. Indeed, this does seem like a good compromise to ease the current shortages, and to facilitate the retention of science and engineering graduates in the UK. It might also encourage more students studying these subjects to come to the UK.

Unfortunately, any changes like this are likely to require a substantial amount of industry pressure and lobbying, But, given that jobs in the UK oil and gas industry are highly skilled and well-rewarded (salaries in 2012 averaged £64,000 ($107,000) per year, with the Exchequer benefiting by over £25,000 ($41,900) per head in payroll taxes, there are obvious incentives for the UK government to take heed. wo-box_blue.gif


  1. BBC, “UK recovery ʻconstrained᾿ by lack of engineers,”, Nov. 4, 2013.
  2., “UK forecasting shortage of engineers,”, Nov. 12, 2013.
  3. The Huffington Post, “Invest in engineers now to power our future,”, Oct. 22, 2013.
  4. The Daily Telegraph, “Sir James Dyson warns over graduate engineer shortage,”, Nov. 29, 2012.
  5. UK Visas and Immigration, “Tier 2 shortage occupation list,”
    , April 6, 2013.
  6., “UK firms complain as Tier 2 visas become harder to get,”, July 19, 2013.
About the Authors
Alison Hutton
Newland Chase
Alison Hutton is senior immigration consultant at Newland Chase, a specialist UK and global immigration firm, based in London. She holds an LL.B (Hons) and a master’s degree in criminology from the University of Cambridge. She is a member of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association.
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