Formula Student

COMMENT: Could immigration policy end UK’s grip on Formula One engineering?

George Koureas, partner at immigration law firm Fragomen LLP

Lewis Hamilton leads the pack during a 2016 Formula One Grand Prix (Credit: Shutterstock)
Lewis Hamilton leads the pack during a 2016 Formula One Grand Prix (Credit: Shutterstock)

Running between the West Midlands and Oxfordshire is ‘Motorsport Valley’, home – or at least partial base – to seven of the 10 Formula One teams.

The area is the global centre of F1 racing, dependent on an annual influx of foreign engineers for the completion and maintenance of the high-performance driving machines. But with Brexit on the horizon and ongoing pressure on workforce numbers from visa cap limits, the pit stop could be empty for many teams next year. 

Scrambling for talent

The public immigration debate has focused mostly on the NHS and the staff needed to run the stretched health service. In July, the government removed NHS doctors and nurses from immigration caps after the limit was exceeded several times and workers struggled to secure visas.

While the change in policy for medical workers was welcome news, the engineering and automotive sectors may be next for concern. With a domestic shortage of 20,000 professionals, the sector is dependent on foreign talent. It is also dominated by long-term projects, which can be severely affected if the required workforce is not present and available. Formula One teams may soon be scrambling for talent if worker availability dries up.

Brexit slowdown

Businesses looking to employ a foreign worker must first apply to the Home Office for a Restricted Certificate of Sponsorship (RCoS) as part of the visa process. These are limited to 20,700 per year and apply to certain workers from around the world.

From December 2017 to August 2018 the maximum limit was hit each month, most likely because businesses are having to recruit from further afield owing to a slowdown in net migration of EU nationals to the UK since the Brexit vote. Until December 2017, the cap was only reached once in six years.

Certificates are allocated on a points basis, taking into account the qualification level required for the role and the salary on offer. The higher the salary, the more likely the RCoS is to be awarded.

As the demand for the certificates has increased, the minimum salary needed to be successful has risen – from November 2017 to April this year, the minimum salary requirement more than doubled from £20,800 to £50,000.

This is a serious area of concern for employers looking to hire foreign talent, as most engineering roles within the automotive sector do not match this criterion. The average salary sits between £20,000 and £45,000, dependent on experience.

Non-EU doctors and nurses previously took 40% of the annual RCoS allocations, so removing them from the cap should free up places for other professionals and subsequently reduce the salary levels required for approvals. July, for example, saw a drop in the minimum salary required to £41,000 from £60,000 in June and there was finally a month of respite in September when the cap was not hit.

While the changes to the Tier 2 visas cap should help to reduce demand, it is likely that only higher-paying sectors will be able to secure visas for potential employees over the coming months owing to business need and the available monthly RCoS allocation decreasing. This could mean the limit is met again over the coming months, hitting Formula One and automotive racing employers looking to bring in workers with lower salaries.

Shortage of workers

For the engineering sector, one potential saving grace is the Home Office Shortage Occupation List. This is specifically designed for occupations where there is a recognised shortage within the UK workforce. If a role is deemed a ‘shortage occupation’, then an RCoS request is given preferential treatment during monthly allocations. The electricity, oil and gas, aerospace and nuclear sectors all have engineering roles listed. However, for engineers within the automotive sector, there are only a handful of specific roles that make the list.

Hitting the road?

Engineers within the automotive racing sector need a fast and flexible system that will provide them with certainty. Without this, business confidence will stall, and many overseas companies may look elsewhere. At present, there is a lag of three to four months for an individual to obtain a visa from the start of the recruitment process.

If the UK government wishes to maintain the country’s automotive stronghold and continue the rich heritage of companies such as Aston Martin, Bentley, Lotus, McLaren, MG, Mini, Morgan, Rolls-Royce and more, it may be a suitable time to examine potential changes to the immigration system. Including more automotive racing engineer roles on the Shortage Occupation list may be a first step to securing more talent, and allowing more flexibility around RCoS salary thresholds could support the sector’s influx of workers.

In the short term, the changes made to the RCoS process in July seem to be doing the trick. In the mid to longer term, the Migration Advisory Committee’s wholly positive recommendations to remove the annual cap altogether will hopefully see our local F1 teams choose to stay in Motorsport Valley, instead of hitting the road in search of a new destination.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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