So we return to the dog-whistle politics of immigration and skills. Our Home Secretary has said that our economic growth should be powered by ‘high skilled jobs’, and that more UK workers must train to do the supposed low skill jobs so that we ‘don’t forget how to do things for ourselves’.
I find it sad but not surprising that within all the bombast it is never UK workers who are being pushed into the high skilled jobs that we are so desperate to fill. We never hear about all the colleges and courses that are being funded to create routes into those high skilled roles for young people, or retraining opportunities for more experienced people to change careers. We of course never hear about these because they do not exist, and so the only political option is ‘high skilled’ immigration.
Skill level has never been the correct metric for an immigration policy, at least not on its own. Any job that requires a measurable level of competence is skilled. Some will be single-task and on-the-job measures such as for fruit picking, some require certification and acceptance of responsibility such as HGV driving, and others are a profession where qualifications are augmented through experience such as butchery. There is an enormous range of skills all of which are valid and necessary to our economic growth, and we lack a national vision and plan for how the need for them is to be met in the food sector.
The lack of a vision for skills is actually part of a bigger black-hole that is the absence of a vision of what we want food to achieve for society. For example, if our national ambition is ‘to feed all our people well while reducing our environmental impact’ then industry and the education sectors could create skills pathways that take us in that direction. There is no shame in admitting we are falling short in skills, or in taking specific actions such as broadening immigration to fix today’s urgent needs, but there does have to be a vision of how we fill the skills gaps of tomorrow.
Today’s needs are being neglected by an immigration policy based on an inflexible Brexit ideology, where even recognised skills have almost impossible hurdles to clear. Blanket approaches to nuanced issues almost never work, and instead we should have a flexible system based on need. Take quite a niche role in our sector of chick sexing. It’s very specialist, needs a person to do it, and requires intense periods of concentration. We don’t need huge numbers across the whole sector, but sometimes with turnover of staff we see shortages. Any role – such as chick sexing – that is already part of the Skilled Worker List is by definition ‘skilled’ but companies can face legal costs of tens of thousands of pounds to bring these workers to the UK because they are apparently not ‘skilled’ enough.
We should have a national system whereby roles like this can be offered to non-UK workers when the need is there, and turned off when it is not. Specific roles meeting a specific skill in a timescale that meets the needs of businesses. We can then have a serious discussion about long-term skills development within the UK, to ensure we put the plans in place to recruit, retain, and develop people on a rolling basis.
A current example of shortages is veterinarians in public health roles. Vets would be classed as ‘high skilled’ and indeed over 90% of vets in slaughterhouses are non-UK, yet we are still facing a massive shortage with ever fewer wanting to come to the UK and our own vets either preferring small animal practice, moving abroad, or dropping out of veterinary practice altogether. Without a clear strategy that includes both encouraging UK vets into public health work and also incentivising non-UK vets to come to the UK we will be in dire straits in the not too distant future. Even with vets on the Shortage Occupation List we are facing this situation, which suggests that it is something about the UK immigration environment that is off-putting.
No one-size-fits-all system can equate and accommodate both vets and chick sexers, let alone the other hundreds of roles within agriculture, food production and food manufacturing. This ‘computer says no’ attitude to immigration by our Government is actively damaging our sector, and the Home Secretary perpetuating it for political gain is an abuse of public office. We should have a system that balances current and future needs, and uses controlled immigration as a flexible tool to support UK opportunities and skills.
There are vanishingly few jobs that are not ‘skilled’ in some manner, with training or qualifications needed and competence measured, although high political office is arguably a topical example. My industry takes seriously its responsibilities and wants to provide secure roles and professions that in turn deliver food security for the UK. Yet the fact remains that we are being stymied at every turn by a Government lacking a coherent immigration and skills policy.