Chefs overtake software developers for UK skilled worker visas

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Chef has overtaken programmer as the most common occupation of migrants arriving in Britain on a skilled worker visa, according to a Financial Times analysis of official data that reflects wider changes in the hiring route’s use.

Some 6,203 chefs were granted skilled worker visas in the year to March 2024, a rise of 54 per cent on the previous year, figures published by the Home Office last week showed.

In the same period, the number of work permits granted to programmers and software developers more than halved from 8,752 to 4,280.

The contrasting trends highlight the extent to which labour shortages have lingered in lower-paid sectors even as hiring slowed in the tech sector and other white-collar professions.

The Office for National Statistics last week said immigration remained close to record levels in 2023, at roughly 1.22mn, with work overtaking study as the main reason for people coming to the UK.

But this was driven by a surge in visas granted to care workers and their relatives. Employers have been sponsoring fewer new recruits in the highly paid areas that used to account for the lion’s share of skilled worker visas.

Besides the slump in the tech sector, which also hit overseas recruitment of IT business analysts, visas granted to management consultants in the first quarter of 2024 were 42 per cent lower than a year earlier at 474.

Visas issued in the finance and insurance sector were 35 per cent lower and those granted for professional, scientific and technical activities fell 36 per cent.

These declines have occurred despite many employers with plans to hire non-UK nationals rushing through applications in the past few months, ahead of a sharp increase in visa fees and in the salaries they must pay for an employee to qualify for a skilled worker visa.

Chefs are among the lower-paid occupations that are likely to be priced out of the visa system in future, because the minimum salary requirement has risen to £38,700, or £30,800 for younger workers.

The average annual salary of a chef was £22,877 in April 2023, according to the most recent ONS data.

The government’s rule change is part of a broader clampdown intended to help it meet a pledge to slash immigration, in particular by banning students and care workers from bringing family members with them to Britain.

Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride last week launched a marketing campaign to persuade employers to fill vacancies with unemployed British workers. Business groups reacted with scepticism, claiming labour shortages had left individual companies at “breaking point”.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said chefs “stood out” as one of the few roles skilled enough to qualify for a visa in a sector where 6 per cent of jobs were unfilled — although the vacancy rate had eased “dramatically” from a post-Covid peak of 15 per cent.

The rise in visa grants to chefs was driven by arrivals from south Asia, with 25 per cent of visas in the first three months of this year issued to Indians, 22 per cent to Bangladeshis and 21 per cent to Pakistanis.

Curry house owners have long lobbied government for easier access to the visa system to overcome a perennial staffing crisis. In 2019, then home secretary Priti Patel ceded to calls for a so-called vindaloo visa, removing a previous restriction on restaurants that offered takeaways.

But Nicholls said chefs recruited from south Asia would be working across the industry, not only in curry houses, given the demand for their skills.

Continuing labour shortages have also led to a rise in the number of jobs in food and hospitality, such as butchers and restaurant managers, being taken by people arriving on skilled worker visas.

Accommodation and food service accounted for 17 per cent of skilled worker visas granted in the first quarter of 2024, well above twice the proportion two years ago.


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