UK needs foreign contractor visas to stop it losing out on Artificial Intelligence skills -- APSCo

The Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) wants the UK government to launch a contractor visa, to help stop the nation losing out on AI and green tech skills.

APSCo, IPSE, and the REC all wouldn’t be drawn yesterday on how a foreign contractor visa would go down with UK contractors, at a time when UK vacancies have retreated by 66,000.

But the association came the closest to answering ContractorUK’s question, saying a visa specific to international contractors would help UK organisations “in the mid-to-long-term”.

'Government has already committed to CCUS and AI investment'

“[Over that period the visa would] help provide them with the expertise all developed nations need to lead on innovation in Artificial Intelligence and Green Technology,” APSCo said.

Pressed on these buzzword skills, the association said the UK has committed to investing in the early deployment of Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS), as well as AI.

Further responding to questions, the association’s Tania Bowers indicated that displacement of UK contractors was far from the aim of the foreign contractor visa.

'Global expertise is vital to Britain'

 “Our members’ primary interest is utilising talent from the domestic market,” Ms Bowers, APSCo’s global public policy director clarified to ContractorUK.

“But the acute skills shortages across the board means that accessing global expertise remains vital.

“However, the current immigration system does not allow recruiters to readily access independent contractors or the self-employed.”

The UK immigration system is also costly, time-consuming, and difficult to navigate, according to the Recruitment & Employment Confederation's Kate Shoesmith.


“For far too long now, we’ve heard [this] from REC member [agencies]”, Ms Shoesmith, the REC's deputy CEO told ContractorUK.

“[The existing immigration system] hampers our ability to attract global talent, at a time when we cannot afford to fall behind our international competitors.”

Last year, the REC tabled seven bold ways to improve the immigration system, such as extending work visas from two to five years and updating the Shortage Occupation List.

'Manifesto for Growth'

Closer to the reform which APSCo’s contractor visa would achieve, the REC also called for a removal of the 20% cap for international workers filling jobs in critical shortage.

And the REC’s ‘Manifesto for Growth’ of 2022 also stated a UK immigration route for entry-level skilled workers should be established.

But with none of its seven suggestions taken up, the confederation signalled yesterday that the next big chance for change on immigration is the main parties’ 2024 election manifestos.

'UK government must first unshackle UK contractors'

The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed sounds like it too will watch every word of the election campaign (expected next year), but for different reasons.

“IPSE would also like to see more self-employed contractors working here in the UK,” the association’s Andy Chamberlain began to ContractorUK.

“Like APSCo, we believe flexible expertise can, and should, play a vital role in plugging skills gaps and driving projects forward.

“However, we would urge the UK government to first unshackle the potential of UK contractors before seeking to fill roles with contractors from overseas.”

'Devastating impact of HMRC rules'

Chamberlain pointed to the off-payroll working rules of April 6th 2017 in the public sector, the off-payroll working rules of April 6th 2021 in the private sector, and MSC legislation enforcement by HMRC, as all having a “devastating” impact on UK contracting.

IPSE’s head of policy, Mr Chamberlain continued to ContractorUK: “Were the government to change its stance on these [frameworks], it would provide an enormous boost to the sector, and to the economy as a whole.

“By making the UK a truly positive environment for self-employment, we would not only unleash the talent we have here now, but we would also attract the best talent from overseas.

“[Yet with] these conditions [from the three frameworks prevailing], it’s hard to see why foreign contractors would want to come here in the first place.”

'Software development'

A new study by positions the UK above the EU as a work destination of interest to foreign job-seekers, as searches for employment in the nation are up 74% since June 2019, compared with just five per cent for opportunities in a member-state.

The UK also emerged as a bit more appealing than India (64% up), but it lost out to Australia (up 141%), with "software development" the second most likely (out of five occupations) to entice would be UK job-holders.

But a closer look at software development in the study reveals that the EU outshone the UK, with an 8.5% share of clicks on related jobs -- making software development the biggest pull in terms of occupation, versus a share of 7% for the UK.

The EU trumping the UK on software development job searches may explain why, for its envisaged contractor visa, APSCo is looking at EU nations for inspiration.

'More effective worker attraction policies than the UK'

“All developed nations are suffering similar issues around skilled labour shortages, [but] other countries -- such as Denmark and Germany -- are adopting more effective policies to attract the skilled global workforce.

“Denmark,” added APSCo’s Ms Bowers in a statement last night, “permits visas to be issued far more quickly and cheaply than in the UK, where it can take the Home Office a long time to process applications. 

“[And if you] look at Germany, the government [there] is facilitating the entry of people to the country without a job if they have the skills and experience deemed to help the country thrive.”

'The UK will lose out on key talent'

Bowers fears that unless the UK follows suit, talent gaps in AI and green tech “will almost certainly worsen,” and “the UK won’t be in a prime position to foster productivity and improve the sluggish economy we’re currently operating in.”

So “without similar action [to Denmark’s and Germany’s], the UK will lose out on key talent to other countries that are ahead of the curve,” she says.

Describing APSCo’s foreign contractor visa for the UK idea as “interesting,” the REC’s Ms Shoesmith suggested it might not be a silver bullet, at least not on its own.

She told ContractorUK: “Fixing the immigration system and home-grown skills development policies -- both are essential to a responsive and responsible labour market that meets business needs, supports all workers -- including contractors, and most importantly of all – facilitates UK growth.”

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Written by Simon Moore

Simon writes impartial news and engaging features for the contractor industry, covering, IR35, the loan charge and general tax and legislation.
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