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It's not a competition: Scotland's skills and the post-Brexit immigration system

It's not a competition: Scotland's skills and the post-Brexit immigration system

The UK Government's new immigration proposals have people debating the nature of ‘high’ or ‘low’ skilled work. But what skills does Scotland need right now?

In her policy statement to the House of Commons in February, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, described the UK’s new immigration system as one that “prioritises those who come to our country based on the skills they have to offer, not on the country they come from”.

The new points-based approach will be “fair” but “firm”, she said, and give top priority to highly skilled workers – “the brightest and the best” – to come here and drive innovation, grow the economy and, where necessary, support our public services. 

Through this new system, Patel said, the UK will develop “a true meritocracy where anyone with the skills who wants to come here will have the ability to do so”. 

The question for businesses in Scotland, though, is, which skills?

Representatives of the social care and hospitality sectors were quick to express their significant concerns about the impact that a restriction of so-called ‘low-skilled’ EU migrants could have on their businesses and the wider Scottish economy. 

The Federation of Small Businesses Scotland, for example, has warned that around one in five small businesses could close or be forced to radically change their business models in order to survive. 

But beyond economics, the immigration debate has also sparked a more fundamental discussion on the nature of skills and their relationship with pay and qualifications: who gets labelled ‘high’ or ‘low’ skilled and what type of skills does Scotland really need right now?

“The whole sector was extremely dismayed at the continued equation of low skill being of low value and of the equating of low skill with social care activity,” Dr Donald Macaskill, the CEO of Scottish Care, told Holyrood. 

“My concern is that both some of our politicians but also the wider public think of the job of caring as something which anybody could do,” he said. 

“That is simply not the case.”

Scotland’s care sector has particular reason to be concerned about the changes being proposed by the Home Office because it’s a sector that is already facing a skills and employment crisis.

Independent care providers are reporting significant vacancy rates. Skills Development Scotland (SDS) estimates there were 12,346 vacancies across the sector in 2018 and a ‘density of skills shortages’ of 28 per cent.  

Shortages in rural areas, where the effects of an ageing population are most pronounced, have put care provisions under “unprecedented” strain. The Western Isles Health and Social Care Partnership is reporting that one in six frontline adult social care positions is vacant.

While this is already the case, the new immigration policy could stand to exacerbate these problems. Between six and eight per cent of frontline care home workers are from outside of Scotland. Up to 16.5 per cent of agency nurses, who often work in care homes, come from EU countries.

And whether by pay or by skill, many of these workers stand to fall short of the new system that aims to reduce the number of “cut-price EU workers”.

Prospective migrants would have to negotiate on a set of criteria including a salary threshold, language abilities, academic qualifications and, crucially, the points value attached to their particular set of skills. 

The general salary threshold will be set at £25,600, which is down from the initial £30,000 suggested by the Conservatives a few months ago, after the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) warned that such a high bar would make it difficult to recruit new teachers and NHS workers from abroad.

Such a salary threshold represents far too high a bar for many of the most critically required jobs in adult social care, where the average salary of a frontline worker is £17,500. 

But with the right skills, the threshold could drop – as long as the skillset or industry qualify for a “tradeable points” mechanism in the system. 

“For example,” Patel said, “a PhD in a relevant subject will earn extra points, with double the number of points for specialists in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

The emphasis on STEM disciplines reflects the government’s desire to sell the UK as a nation that is at the “cutting edge of life-changing innovation and technology”, somewhere the “finest international minds” would be attracted to live. 

There will be concessions made to the system to reflect the need for workers in certain areas, such as a special visa tier for NHS workers. A separate scheme for seasonal agricultural workers will also be introduced.

And shortages for very specific roles included on the MAC Shortage Occupation List, like nuclear scientists and Gaelic-medium teachers, will continue to get easier access.

But care workers are set to fall short of all of these standards, for pay and, seemingly, for skill level. 

This is the thing that Macaskill takes most exception to.

“In order to be a frontline social carer, you have to be registered with the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC),” he says.

“You have to be qualified and that qualification has to be at SVQ level and over a period of time, you have to demonstrate that you are continuing in your professional development. 

“And you have to have the necessary core skills. What are those core skills?

“They are the ‘softer skills’ and I suppose some of my critiques of the political statements and the immigration proposals is that they are very much based on what are called ‘hard, cognitive and technical skills’. They’re related to the earnings level that some of those skills attract.”

Care workers in Scotland are paid at least the Scottish Living Wage, unlike other parts of the UK, but the industry is still considered low paid. Still, the contribution of the care sector to the wider Scottish economy is hard to underestimate: the SSSC estimates the sector to be worth £3.4bn to the economy, and that’s before taking into account how adult social care alleviates the care burden and allows people to continue working in other sectors.

This is not a competition, it’s about validating skills and abilities which are of paramount significance to the wellbeing of a nation

The Scottish Government’s proposals for a Scottish visa to allow a tailored migration approach that would “[welcome] people with the range of skills we need to work” was rejected out of hand by the UK Government hours after it was published. 

The First Minister has since offered to lead a delegation, made up of business and care sector representatives, to Westminster, to put the case for greater flexibility to the Prime Minister personally, but there has so far been no response. The Scottish Conservative party is continuing to meet with stakeholders before announcing a position on immigration that is likely to clash with the UK Government’s as well.

In the meantime, the discussion around the definition of low and high skills continues.

“What I’ve been calling for is a reorientation for what we mean by skills,” Macaskill said. 

“And skills of compassion, empathy, communication, the ability to relate and the ability to deal with the various challenges, the ability to enable and encourage – all those that we have traditionally thought of as softer skills are, I think, as valuable to any society as technical skills and higher academic skills. 

“This is not a competition, it’s about validating skills and abilities which are of paramount significance to the wellbeing of a nation,” he said. 

The Future Skills Action Plan was launched in September 2019 following a commitment announced by the First Minister in the 2018-19 programme for government (PfG) to recognise “the importance of skills to improving Scotland’s productivity and economic growth”.

In the ministerial foreword to the plan Jamie Hepburn, Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills, described Scotland’s need for a skills system that is “characterised by agility and flexibility”. The core vision of the plan is for a future where “Scotland’s highly skilled workforce ensures we are an ambitious, productive and competitive nation”.

The plan discusses the need to respond to the challenges associated with Brexit as well as climate change, including the need to develop a specific Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan to turn the existing skills across industries in Scotland toward creating an environmentally sustainable economy. 

SDS and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) are currently working on this plan. Both bodies have received a funding boost in the 2020-21 Scottish budget, with a 4.7 per cent raise for SDS to a total £224.8m and a £40m increase for SFC to £1.88bn.

Further measures to this end include £10m of additional funding for those already in work, through doubling the Flexible Workforce Development Fund and a £2m fund for innovation and skills in the transition to offshore wind power. 

The limit to the potential of Scotland’s tech economy continues to be a digital skills shortage that runs all the way through from education to the present workforce.

“We need about 12,500 people every year and we produce about 5,000 from the usual sources,” Polly Purvis, the former head of ScotlandIS warned last year. Her successor, Jane Morrison-Ross, has said there are currently 13,000 vacancies across the sector.

In high schools, there has been a long-term decline in both the number of pupils taking computing as a subject and in the number of computing teachers – both still well below the levels of a decade ago.

For the current workforce, the Scottish Government launched the £1m Digital Start Fund to reskill workers, particularly those returning to work or who join from disadvantaged backgrounds, with skills like software development and cyber security much in demand.

Launching the scheme, then minister for digital economy Kate Forbes said: “Technology is forecast to be the fastest growing sector in Scotland by 2024, but success is dependent on skills. This is a big opportunity not only for tech businesses, but also to future employees.”

The Scottish Government also sees upskilling as a means for tackling issues such as child poverty. The 2019-20 PfG announced a £500,000 Family Learning Scotland Programme to help parents gain new skills and take up learning and training. The programme is designed to be integrated with the expansion of early learning and childcare to “allow parents to build on their skills and gain better work”.

And for young people, the apprenticeship route into careers is expanding. The Scottish Government says that over 37,000 apprenticeships were in training in 2018-19 with an expected 30,000 new starts projected for 2020-21.

With Scottish Apprenticeship Week running last week, from 2-6 March, SDS was encouraging councils, schools and employers to take part in raising awareness of apprenticeships as a more practical alternative to further education, leading to a wide range of careers, from technology to care.

SDS Director of National Training Programmes Katie Hutton said: “Scottish apprenticeships are increasingly becoming a vital means for industry to shape its workforce.

“More and more individuals are recognising the benefits of work-based learning, with opportunities to gain skills in careers for the future.

“Scottish Apprenticeship Week shines a light on the major contribution apprenticeships make across all business sectors and the difference they make to the lives of thousands of people across the country.

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