The mobility of labour has been big news. First, business secretary Vince Cable claimed that immigration caps have damaged British industry. Then automotive trade body the SMMT expressed concerns that migrant limits were making it hard for its members to find enough people with the technical skills they need. It’s a subject that has already provoked a lively response in PE’s letters, but we thought it worthy of more in-depth evaluation through this week’s Survey panel. And, boy, has it opened a Pandora’s Box of feisty opinion.
To set the scene, we thought it might be useful to know how many of our readers have worked abroad for an extended period of time, say, three months. In a sector with plenty of international conglomerates, you might think that the figure would be quite high. Indeed, a sizeable 39% of the 402 readers who responded to our questions this week have worked in a foreign country for three months or more but that still left a majority of 61% who had never sampled the pleasures of an extended period abroad.
Then we altered the question slightly by asking whether readers would like to work abroad for an extended period of time – again, say, three months. The question may have been similar but the answer was very different – 62% said they would, with 34% saying No and 4% Don’t Know. From analysing the write-in answers many readers provided there are lots of engineers who have been prevented from working abroad because of family circumstances but harbour a desire to do so. One chap said he had toyed with the idea many times but couldn’t face being homeless upon return as his angry wife would have undoubtedly sold up and moved away.
The next question went some way to proving that engineering is a globalised profession. We asked whether there were opportunities for working in foreign climes within our readers’ organisations, and a weighty 77% said there were. Many readers said their firms had plenty of work in countries such as China and India and in some cases companies encouraged their engineers to seek a transfer.
Then we turned the tables and asked for opinions on migrants coming to the UK to work. In July, the Home Office imposed a temporary limit on non-EU migrant workers, which will limit the number of incoming workers to 24,100 from June 2010 to April 2011. Did readers think this was a good idea? Just over half thought that putting a restriction on numbers was a sensible thing to do. The slim majority Yes vote was bolstered by a significant number of readers who felt that many other countries imposed such limits and that the UK should therefore follow suit. Others argued that with a notable number of redundancies in manufacturing in the past couple of years, more effort was needed to find work for unemployed skilled engineers and technicians in the UK before we started importing skills.
The interim limit announced in July caps the number of highly skilled workers through raising eligibility requirements under a points-based system, as well as limiting the number of sponsorship certificates for tier two skilled workers, which is the category intra-company transferees fall under. This is the area where the SMMT has concerns that capping the number of highly skilled migrants could have a negative impact on British competitiveness and the re-balancing of the economy.
So we asked if readers believed that all intra-company transfers should be excluded from the government’s migration limits. The response – Yes 61%, No 30%, Don’t Know 9% – showed that almost two thirds of respondents had sympathy with the SMMT’s point of view. A good percentage of readers argued that intra-company transfers should be permitted for a limited period to meet specific skills gaps. Others argued that if a person were employed by a multinational performing an important role in an area such as engineering, it would seem irrational to stop them conducting their business in the UK, as these people would pay taxes and benefit the country.
Then we asked if readers were concerned that the inclusion of intra-company transfers would have an impact on the attractiveness of the UK as a location for inward investment. The reply was split almost straight down the middle – Yes 44%, No 41%, Don’t Know 15%. Some readers felt that it was a global market and that skilled workers should be able to move around inside their organisation as they wished. Many others felt that the inward investment argument was conveniently put forward by international firms so they could import foreign workers on lower wages.
It was a similar answer when we asked if engineers were worried that the competitiveness of UK firms would be hit by the imposition of an immigration cap. The responses were Yes 37%, No 54%, Don’t Know 9%, and there was a feeling among many that the issue was being overplayed. More than a handful of readers specifically stated that the issue of immigration caps was only a minor inconvenience to firms when compared to tax and red tape.
Finally we asked if there were signs that our readers’ companies had been affected by skills shortages. Yes said 56%, No 41% and Don’t Know 3%. There were lots of write-in replies to this question, with many saying that skill shortages were often self-inflicted as firms had made staff redundant in large numbers during the depths of the recession and were struggling to replace them now. Others felt that skills shortages would always be with us, as there simply weren’t enough young engineers coming out of the education system. And, depressing, said many, that situation wasn’t likely to change any time soon.