It’s been a week in which I’ve wanted to write on lots of topics that have been reported in the media – and I don’t have time to do it all.  But there are a few things that are really important in engineering at the moment so I’m going to stagger them over the course of the next few weeks and hope they’re still relevant by the time I get to publish them!  And here’s number 1:

This week, the UK government announced plans to allow non-EU citizens to remain here only if they earn over £35K pa after 6 years in the country. Immediately the response was that it will hit the NHS due to the very high numbers of nurses from overseas. Also that there are many low-paid jobs that the native British just don’t want to do, which immigrants often end up working in. Our immigration rules are complicated, counter-intuitive and harsh as it is; and this is another arbitrary rule to add to the never-ending list.

So, we know that professions that we consider to be traditionally low-paid will be affected, but there’s more to it than this. The current rules already break up families, with a marked effect in academia. UK universities seem very keen to attract overseas staff and students (they bring in more money than UK nationals due to their having to pay a higher rate of fees and maintenance), but immigration rules stand in their way. International students are under higher scrutiny than UK students simply by virtue of the fact they have to demonstrate attendance and their whereabouts just to stay in the country. And academic positions are often short-term contracts and poorly paid. With little certainty of an income, academics and their families live in fear of being kicked out if they or their spouse earns below a certain threshold. And being married to a UK national isn’t a guarantee of being permitted to stay, either.

And worse: if academia is considered a respectable profession, what about engineering?  The trouble here is that you won’t be poor in this industry, but you’re also unlikely to be terribly rich either.  I do a well-regarded, complex and important job, one which I have done for the last 13 years.  I work in a sector with a shortage of skilled staff (despite exposés of the ‘myth’ of a skills shortage – check out this excellent breakdown of the facts from the Huffington Post).  And I’m not quite at the £35K mark yet.  So if a highly-educated and experienced British national can’t fulfil the criteria imposed on immigrants, what hope is there for someone coming to our country from abroad to fill vacancies that we desperately need them to work in?

I currently work with many people from abroad, and I do worry that I will start to see my colleagues disappearing.  It’s bad for me, for the projects I work on, and for engineering generally.  What is the government thinking?

As well as coming across as incredibly insular and unfriendly, I really feel the UK is setting itself up for a fall.  Certain industries, e.g. healthcare, engineering, the sciences, are going to start losing staff; we will be unable to produce.  We will lose many skilled, but low-waged employees (I say low-waged, but the median income in the UK is about £26,000, so immigrants are actually being held to a ridiculously high standard here), and we’re not exactly training up many of our own people to fill those vacancies.  UK higher education has had its funding slashed of late, and tuition fees are currently set at an astronomical £9K per year for British & EU undergraduates.  Many vacancies I have applied for, or seen other people recruiting for, want people who already have experience.  It’s the old problem of being a new worker – every job wants you to have experience, but you can’t get the experience because no-one will take you on.  We have a huge problem with not investing in staff (from wherever), and combining this with immigration policies to keep out those who do have the skills is bad news for UK industry.  Even if we do suddenly sit up and realise we need to train British people to do the work, well, it’s not going to happen overnight.  We’re tearing down a system that is already broken to replace it with something far worse.

I do wonder, have we got to a point where we can either choose to bolster our low birth rate with immigrants to fill the roles of the missing British people, or do we just allow our population to dwindle and wind down our output correspondingly?  It’s a scary thought, but it could become a reality if we make it even more difficult for outsiders to get in.


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