Plight of workless Hongkongers in the UK reveals a skills mismatch


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The writer is director of research at British Future, a think-tank

When figures for net migration hit an all-time peak of 606,000 in 2022, commentators complained of the UK’s “addiction” to foreign workers. Yet then, as now, work visa holders and their dependants accounted for about a quarter of the total. The figure was explained by increases in students and arrivals on humanitarian routes from Hong Kong and Ukraine.

Official migration statistics out this week are expected to show net migration levelling off, while still remaining relatively high. This slowdown isn’t a good news story: the UK is experiencing chronic skills shortages that are holding back economic growth. But with the government under pressure to bring the immigration numbers down, business voices are unlikely to get a hearing if they simply ask for more.

Instead, they should focus on those who are already here — and how they could be better deployed. Employers and the government are missing opportunities to access the skills of the many migrants who came to the UK via non-work routes.

Of the hundreds of thousands of people whose visas grant the right to work and who have arrived in the UK over the past year, the new figures will include Ukrainians, Hongkongers, refugees, adults with family reunion visas, and adult dependants of students and work visa holders. Many are of working age but their potential to meet skills and labour shortages has been almost entirely overlooked.

Hongkongers with British National (Overseas) visas are one such group, with an estimated 123,000 having arrived since 2021. New research to be published on Wednesday by British Future and the Welcoming Committee for Hongkongers finds they are helping to fill gaps in key sectors with skills shortages, including wholesale and retail, IT, education and hospitality.

Six in 10 are graduates or postgraduates. Yet only half are in work, many in lower-skilled jobs: almost half said that their job either didn’t match their skills and experience at all (27 per cent) or only a little (20 per cent). Most of those aged over 45 with a professional qualification said they were not using it in their current job.

Most of these Hongkongers in the UK say the biggest barrier to finding a job that matches their skills and qualifications is confident English. Yet two-thirds rate their spoken and written English as good or very good: they need higher-level English language classes, yet most colleges provide beginner to intermediate level. Lack of experience in the UK is also significant and so are qualifications that are not recognised, as our respondents explained. As one living in north-west England said: “Many of us are still looking for a better job or chances to contribute more.”

These barriers are not unique to Hongkongers — other migrants arriving outside the work visa system are likely to face them, too. Yet many employers are unaware of this untapped talent pool. Our discussions with them revealed low awareness of the BN(O) visa, which may lead some to reject applicants, fearing they do not have the right to work.

Opportunities to recruit outside the points-based system seem not to have been explored. Yet recruiting migrants authorised and available for skilled work, such as Hongkongers, offers a solution.

The government can help, too, by ensuring the National Careers Service and Jobcentre Plus meet the needs of migrants. More than three-quarters of BN(O)s said they had not received any careers information or guidance, although two-thirds would welcome it.

Persistent skills shortages may hinder the plans of the current and future government to stimulate economic growth. And better skills matching would benefit the whole UK working population, including migrants, who should be seen as part of a coherent skills policy, rather than an alternative source — or threat — to British workers.

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