The Youth Mobility Scheme allows employers to access younger workers from countries such as India and Iceland for two years. With skills shortages afflicting critical sectors, now might be the time for the government to consider a youth visa agreement with the EU.

The long-running HGV driver crisis and its recent knock-on effects on the UK’s fuel and food supply chains have prompted the government to issue 10,500 temporary visas to fill skill and staff shortages in these sectors.

While we hopefully will have turkeys on our tables for Christmas, it is unlikely that this post-Brexit immigration giveaway will solve longer-term structural problems in the road transport sector and our supply chains. Shortages in this industry are now endemic in many countries, and a combination of poor working conditions together with the memories of huge delays at the UK border in 2020 mean it is unlikely that the promise of a short-term visa will lure many drivers to these shores.

The 30,000 visas available for Seasonal Agricultural Workers, many of whom come from the EU, does not even touch the sides of what this sector needs. And if that wasn’t enough for the government, the hospitality industry has now come out to push for bartenders, chefs and sommeliers to be included in the shortage occupation list.

The debacle throws a spotlight on the government’s failure to plan for this huge adjustment to the labour market. It was clear that the end of free movement would have obvious consequences for sectors with low wages, tight margins, and existing staffing shortages. The outcomes we are seeing, while not entirely predictable, could at least have been foreseen as one of a range of consequences for shutting the UK off from lower skilled workers. While the new immigration system did lower the overall skills threshold for Skilled Worker sponsored visas, it was always going to keep out the very workers that UK employers are crying out for now.

While all this has unfolded, the UK has quietly signed youth mobility agreements with India (May) and Iceland (July). From January 2022, nationals of these countries will join the ranks of existing beneficiaries from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.

These Youth Mobility Scheme visas offer those aged 18-30 a one-off visa that enables them to work in any occupation for up to two years (with the notable exception of being a professional sportsperson). India is the one exception in that visa holders must have a degree or three years’ skilled work experience. Visa holders need to leave the UK at the end of the visa unless they can switch into a long-term work visa.

So why not agree youth mobility visas with EU countries to alleviate some of the UK’s current labour market challenges, while at the same time offering the possibility of cultural exchanges that Brexit has cut off?

“Valuable route”

In response to a parliamentary question, the immigration minister Kevin Foster responded this week: “Our Youth Mobility Scheme (YMS) agreements provide a valuable route for mutual cultural exchange and are not simply a one-way route for recruiting labour from overseas. We will therefore not add nations to the YMS route unilaterally."

“We are open to negotiating YMS arrangements with other countries and territories, including the EU or nations within it. However, as each YMS is subject to a bilateral, reciprocal agreement which also provides benefit to UK Nationals, with the detail negotiated and agreed between the relevant parties, we are unable to disclose the status of ongoing negotiations with partner countries as they occur.”

There is nothing preventing either the UK or each EU Member State from signing these bilateral agreements. EU countries regularly sign bilateral reciprocal youth mobility visa agreements with third countries, as seen with the revamped Italy/Canada agreement signed last year. This offers greater professional career development work opportunities and the possibility to apply for the 12 month visa twice. The UK/Iceland agreement is the first with a European (albeit only EEA) country which will allow up to 1,000 young Icelanders a year to come to the UK to work for two years.

Youth mobility won’t solve the UK’s current labour shortages. The government won’t want to be seen to be rushing to sign these agreements for fear they could be miscast as a knee-jerk reaction to our current woes. But the sooner they do agree them, the better.

This article was first published by Personnel Today on 4 October 2021 (Subscription Required).