Today the Prime Minister has set out his stall on immigration saying he wants ‘good immigration not mass immigration’. But how will it affect the brain-hungry energy sector which has thrived over the past decade from an influx of foreign engineers and scientists?
Earlier this week ELN spoke to the Institution of Engineering and Technology which warned that immigration policies could lead to a skills gap for the UK energy industry. We all know we need £200 billion investment to bring forward the vision of a new low carbon energy sector. But what’s not said enough, is the money is only one side of the story. Who will design and build and run the future wind and tidal infrastructure, who will build the new nuclear power stations and who will set up and run the supergrid?
We need engineers, scientists and skilled technicians. We have a shortage of these people and an ageing population in the sector. Fewer homegrown students are choosing these more ‘difficult’ subjects to study. Infact if you visit any major university you will hear various accents spoken in engineering departments, maths classes and laboratories. These students increasingly come from Asia, Africa, South America and Russia.
A third of the big six suppliers are run by foreign CEOs. Sure they are European but they are international people and the energy sector is increasingly international. Companies from India and China and Russia are investing here but will they continue to do so if they face a cap on bringing in staff from those countries?
The PM wants a cap of 20,700 skilled workers a year. What if the scientist you need to recruit is the 20,701st?
Mr Cameron said his government would cut down on bogus students and the new policies would continue to ‘attract the world’s brightest to come to these shores’. He also announced a new entrepreneur visa to help bring the best business brains to the UK.
The question is what impression will today’s speech leave globally? Already the Times of India is reporting on a backlash against the UK’s tougher visa policies. Will the brightest people from outside the EU now think of the UK as a no-go zone?
After all if you are a young engineer from Singapore or Bangalore and you now face extra scruitiny and huge fees to come and study in the UK and then face the prospect of a limited work placement, will a job in Beijing suddenly seem far more attractive than Birmingham?
No one doubts concerns over immigration particularly the pressures on health and education sectors but the people whom the energy sector will depend on over the coming decade will be professionals. Is there a danger they’ll be swept up by a policy aimed at the unskilled?
Caps seldom work in a free market economy and if this policy is to fly it will have to tread carefully and meet the balance between satisfying the British public’s concerns and the needs of the British economy.