A recent report from NIACE (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) looks at migration and explores its relationship with the labour market, learning and skills. With growing job creation, and employers increasingly reporting gaps and shortages of necessary skills, this is a well timed overview particularly given evidence showing that immigrants often tend to be better educated than the UK born population – in fact a higher proportion of immigrants work in the professional sectors than of UK born counterparts.
The research shows that migration has made an important contribution to the UK’s economic and social development, so why is the public debate around it usually negative and often without reference to evidence? The focus tends to be on volume and the possible resulting negative impacts, rather than on value, giving rise to a consensus view that migration is a problem rather than an opportunity. This despite recent analysis highlighting the positive net fiscal contribution of migrants since 2000, and the fact that they are significantly less likely to receive state benefits and tax credits.
Some of this might be down to contrasting experiences across the UK. Migrants will tend to move to areas of strong growth and employment opportunities, dependent upon their skills, which may have an impact on both the prosperity and infrastructure of local communities, and also cause some of the local population to seek employment elsewhere. The Labour Force Survey in 2014 showed that three-quarters of the increase in the non-UK born population happened in just a quarter of local authority areas.
Last year’s UKCES Working Futures report anticipated 13.5m job vacancies over the next 10 years, with only an estimated 7m new labour market entrants to fill them. Whilst some of the slack may be taken up by older workers putting off retirement, it seems clear that our workforce needs, and skill requirements, may have to be met in some part by looking outside the existing workforce, and towards embracing migration as an opportunity.
The NIACE report found four current barriers to this:
- Language: research indicates that lack of access to English language learning prevents migrants from upgrading their skills, and businesses from using their full talents, with finding cuts having restricted the number of places.
- Skill recognition: a University of Birmingham study showed that migrants with professional and trade qualifications from other countries found that they were not recognised in the UK, and those with degrees often found them downgraded. Without recognition they have to undertake further training to get their skills recognised, potentially leading to duplication.
- Migration cap: in an attempt to cap net migration the government has directed policy at non-EU entrants, which has limited international students and hindered access to some highly skilled migrants who are needed to fill specific skill gaps.
- Public perception: there is a challenge to create policy that recognises the negative perceptions whilst promoting and leveraging the benefits of immigration.
Some solutions are suggested in the report to help maximise the benefits of migration, whilst also supporting UK-born residents to succeed and create greater community cohesion. Having greater access to English learning, comprising classes and online courses, with encouragement to invest in wider skill enhancement, is an urgent need, whilst support offered at a local level will help with greater opportunities and cohesion. I find little to disagree with there, and hope that budget restrictions can be overcome. The importance of communication skills can’t be stressed highly enough.
Their third suggestion – a review of the migrant cap to ensure access to students, entrepreneurs and highly skilled, technical staff – may be difficult politically but I think would be welcomed by businesses and those working in the recruitment and HR sectors. The monthly Report on Jobs, produced by KPMG and the REC, shows increasing skill shortages and problems with getting access to the right skills, particularly in STEM occupations, which could have a negative longer term impact on productivity and economic growth.
If migration can help foster growth and ease longer-term labour market concerns then we will need practical solutions and, I think, a shift in policy, away from dealing with perceptions towards looking at reality.