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Immigration solutions to labour shortages in the UK

Posted on 16 January 2023

The number of job vacancies in the UK has reached a record high in recent years. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of job vacancies in September to November 2022 was 1,187,000, with the number of vacancies for all industries in the UK continuing to remain above pre- COVID-19 levels.

The reasons for this historic high in job vacancies are complex and multifaceted. A study by ReWAGE and the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford concluded that the pandemic, international sector-specific labour shortages, and an increase in early retirement have been important factors. A report by the House of Lords economic affairs committee also recently found that an increase in long term sickness and disability among the working age population, as well as an aging population were important drivers.  Whilst therefore not the only cause, another significant factor which has exacerbated recruitment issues has been the UK's departure from the European Union, which ended free movement and the ability of EU nationals to come to the UK to work without a visa.  

Employers who used to rely on EU workers have had to adjust to new ways of filling posts and of hiring talent from overseas. To enable employers to attract 'the brightest and the best', the UK Government has made changes to its immigration system and has widened the available visa options in certain areas to attract skilled and specialist labour.

The current visa options for the UK can be grouped into the following five categories: visitors, students, family-based, workers, and investment-based. Of these categories, the ones which will be of most interest to employers, are likely to be work and family-based. While there are detailed requirements which apply to each specific visa, these categories are considered broadly below.

Work routes

There are various work-based visa categories for the UK. Broadly, they can be separated into sponsored and non-sponsored visa routes.

Sponsored work routes

If a company wishes to employ non-British or non-Irish nationals, they may be required to sponsor them. To do so, employers must first make an application to obtain a Sponsor Licence from the Home Office. Once this Licence is in place, the candidate will then need to apply for a visa to work for the company in the UK. The type of visa required will depend on the particularities of the role in question.

  • The most common visa category for work in the UK is the Skilled Worker visa. This is for new hires to the company or for global relocations which are intended to be long-term or permanent. The UK has seen a huge rise in visas issued under this category in recent years. Removing the cap on work permits, abandoning the need to advertise jobs in the UK before applying for a visa, and reducing the minimum salary threshold have all made it easier for employers looking to utilise this category.
  • In order for a migrant worker to be sponsored for a job under this category, their proposed position must be at school leaver skill level or higher, and carry a salary of at least £25,600 per annum or the ''going rate'' for the job type as set by the Home Office, whichever is higher. This visa route may lead to indefinite leave to remain in the UK (ILR, also known as settlement), provided that the worker meets all the qualifying criteria for the application.
  • Other options for work visa sponsorship are grouped under the Global Business Mobility (GBM) routes. The GBM routes are designed for workers undertaking temporary assignments in the UK and therefore they do not lead to ILR. The GBM category has five sub-categories which provide flexibility for businesses both with and without an established presence in the UK. The five sub-categories include the Senior and Specialist Worker, Graduate Trainee, UK Expansion Worker, Service Supplier and Secondment Worker routes. Although there are some exceptions, in most cases, the role being filled in the UK must be at University degree skill level or higher, and carry a salary of at least £42,400 per annum or the going rate for the role as set by the Home Office, whichever is higher.
  • Where an employer wishes to sponsor an intern or another short-term, temporary worker from overseas, several routes may be available to them, including the International Agreement visa, the Government Authorised Exchange visa, and the Charity Worker visa. All these routes are grouped under the Temporary Worker banner and may require employers to be registered with a particular scheme to support this visa.
Non-sponsored work routes

All of the following non-sponsored visa routes allow great flexibility for employment, as their holders are permitted to work in any job, apart from work as a professional sportsperson (including as a sports coach).

  • The most prominent non-sponsored work visa route is the Global Talent visa and its sub-category, the Global Promise visa. These categories are designed to enable those who are recognised as leaders or future leaders in the fields of science, humanities, arts and digital technology to live and work in the UK. To qualify for this route, a migrant worker must either be endorsed by a Home Office-approved endorsing body, or have won a Home Office-specified award for their work. These visa routes lead to ILR, provided the worker has gained financial earnings in the UK in their specialist field during the period of holding the visa and meets the additional qualifying criteria.
  • Whilst for a long period of time UK graduates were not able to obtain a post-study work visa, the UK Government has recently opened the Graduate visa route. This route allows international students to stay in the UK post-graduation to work, or look for work, at any skill level for either two or three years. Employers could therefore seek to take advantage of this route as it provides an opportunity to recruit international talent regardless of whether or not the employer has a Sponsor Licence and without having to pay the costs involved in sponsorship. This visa does not lead to permanent rights to stay in the UK, however, and cannot be extended. After the initial two-three year period the worker would need to switch to another visa route to stay in the UK.
  • A similar route for international graduates, the High Potential Individual visa, was introduced by the UK Government earlier this year. Similar to the Graduate visa, this visa allows its holder to work, or look for work in the UK at any skill level. To be eligible to apply, the applicant must have graduated in the last five years from a leading non-UK university with a degree which is equivalent to a UK Bachelor’s or above. The Home Office maintains a list of top universities known as the Global Universities List and the awarding institution of the applicant’s degree must appear on this list in respect of the applicant's year of graduation. Once granted, the visa is normally valid for two years (or three years, where the applicant was awarded a degree at PhD level), may not be extended, and does not lead to ILR.
  • The Youth Mobility Scheme is a further non-sponsored visa route, which is open to nationals of Australia, Canada, Monaco, New Zealand, San Marino, Iceland, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan aged between 18 and 30. The visa is granted for up to two years, may not be extended, and does not lead to ILR.
  • The UK Government has also recently opened a hybrid visa route, the Scale-up Worker visa. This route allows fast-growing UK businesses to sponsor workers for a period of at least six months. After six months, the Scale-up worker can take employment with other organisations in the UK, including those without licences to sponsor workers. In order for a migrant to be sponsored for this visa, their proposed job role must be at a University degree skill level or higher, and a carry a salary of at least £33,000 per year or the going rate for the role, whichever is higher. Whilst this visa is initially granted for a two-year period, it may be extended and can lead to ILR, where the worker meets the relevant qualifying criteria.

It is worth noting that almost all of the above-mentioned work visa routes (apart from the Youth Mobility Scheme visa) allow for dependent spouses and children to join the main visa holder in the UK. Dependant spouses of work visa holders are normally permitted to work in any job, apart from work as a professional sportsperson (including as a sports coach).

Family-based routes

Individuals who have British family members (or family members with ILR) may be able to apply for a family-based visa depending on their circumstances. Where a spouse of a British citizen or someone with ILR holds a visa in this capacity, they do not have restrictions on the type of work they may carry out in the UK, which offers great flexibility for recruitment.

The UK Ancestry visa is another highly flexible option, which does not have restrictions on the type of work the visa holder may carry out. This visa route is open to Commonwealth citizens, British Overseas Citizens, British National (Overseas) citizens, British Overseas Territories citizens and citizens of Zimbabwe who have a grandparent born in the UK.

All family-based visa routes offer a path to ILR. Holding ILR allows a migrant to remain in the UK for as long as they wish, and the possibility to apply for British citizenship thereafter.


Following the UK's departure from the EU, the UK Government has made efforts to broaden the options available to employers in the UK to hire talent from overseas and, accordingly, the UK has seen a huge increase in the number of work-related visas issued in recent years. In 2021, there were 239,987 work-related visas granted (including dependants). This was a 110% increase on 2020, and 25% higher than in 2019. The Skilled Worker visa, which accounts for 63% of work-related visas granted, saw the largest growth in visa numbers from 2019 (when its predecessor, the Tier 2 General visa was in place) and increased by 33%.

Nevertheless, for many businesses, the UK's immigration system remains opaque and restrictive and further reform is needed. This applies in particular to businesses desperate to recruit at lower skill levels and who find that there are rarely appropriate visa routes for the vacancies they need to fill. With such a pronounced chasm between job vacancies and applicants, the UK may still have a way to go until its immigration system is deemed fit for purpose, and calls on the UK Government to introduce further flexibility are likely to continue.

Where immigration issues arise in an employment context, preparation and long-term planning are key.

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