Making social science accessible

23 Nov 2023



Heather Rolfe explores the issue of the under-utilisation of migrants’ skills in the UK drawing on new British Future research looking at the experience of British National (Overseas) (BN(O) Hong Kongers.

One rarely discussed topic in the UK immigration debate is the under-use of migrants’ skills. Many migrants in the UK take jobs below their level of qualifications and experience. With skills shortages reported across sectors, and research showing the importance of employment to integration, politicians and policy makers could do with paying more attention to this topic.

To date, evidence for this has largely focused on EU migrants who arrived under free movement. However, new findings published this week from the Welcoming Committee for Hong Kongers at British Future, from a survey of 2,000 of more than 113,000 Hong Kongers who have come to the UK under the new British National (Overseas) (BN(O) visa, finds widespread under-use of skills and qualifications among these new arrivals.

What is already known about under-use of migrants’ skills?

According to the Migration Observatory, around half of highly educated workers from the EU were in low and medium-low skilled jobs in 2020. This has implications beyond the pay and life chances of migrants: the UK has shortages of skills and labour, exacerbated by the pandemic, loss of EU workers through Brexit, and early exit of older workers. Job vacancies are still higher than pre-pandemic levels.

The reasons for the under-utilisation of migrants’ skills are not well understood. One factor is their reliance on informal advice and personal networks to find work. This results in their concentration in sectors with low entry requirements and low pay. Other research finds recognition of non-UK qualifications a factor for some EU migrants. Although there was previously a system for mutual recognition of qualifications this ended with Brexit.

Hong Kong BN(O)s are not finding work that matches their qualifications and skills

British National (Overseas) (BN(O) Hong Kongers are a well-qualified group: six in ten have undergraduate or post-graduate degrees. This suggests that the Home Office impact assessment estimate of the net benefit to the UK of the BNO scheme at between £2.4 and £2.9 billion over five years could be achieved. But only half are in work in the UK, and many are in lower skilled jobs. Almost half of working BN(O)s said their job doesn’t match their skills and experience at all (27%), or only a little (20%). Most of those aged over 45 with a professional qualification said they were not using it in their current job. They include people who are qualified as nurses, engineers and teachers.

The extent to which BN(O)s can feel their job doesn’t match their skills and qualifications also depends on where they live: almost three-quarters of those living in London had achieved a good match, compared to only a half in Yorkshire and just over a third in Scotland.

Not being able to use your skills and qualifications may not matter so much for migrants planning short stays. But staying in low-skilled work for any length of time damages career prospects and affects life chances. It’s particularly problematic for migrants planning on long-term settlement. And our survey found that 99% of BN(O)s plan to apply for permanent settlement and citizenship.

How can migrants achieve a better jobs-match?

BN(O)s say confidence in speaking English is the biggest barrier to finding work or a job that matches their skills and qualifications. It’s important to note that this is about confidence, not ability to speak English: two-thirds rate their spoken and written English as good or very good. The biggest demand is for higher level English language (ESOL) courses, as most college provision is at beginner to intermediate level.

Recognition of qualifications, lack of experience in the UK and knowledge about the UK labour market are also significant issues. Added to this, many are not able to obtain a reference or a criminal record check (DRB) where a certificate from the Hong Kong Police Force is required.

Employment and career guidance services in the UK are, in theory at least, able to help with these. Yet more than three-quarters of BN(O)s said they had not received any careers information, advice or guidance, while two-thirds said they would like it.

What could the government do?

To better utilise migrants’ skills, the government could ensure that the UK National Careers Service and Jobcentre plus are geared up to meet the needs of migrants. A second step would be to reform our ESOL system so that it goes beyond the basics.

Third, a coordinated strategy is needed to ensure effective use of skills for the whole UK working population. A properly coordinated strategy would look at the potential economic contribution of migrants on all types of visas, not just the small minority who arrive through the points-based system. It would identify barriers to employment and policies and practices to address these. And it would bring together key UK government departments, industry bodies and employers across sectors and regions, making it part of the government’s approach to levelling-up.

Work helps migrants to feel they contribute and belong

The responses to our survey made it clear that working helps migrants to integrate and feel part of Britain. It helps make the most of a new life and can ease feelings of loss for the one left behind. In the words of one of the survey respondents:

“The first time I felt ‘yes, I feel like I belong here’ was when I went to the company Christmas party with my colleagues to drink and dance, I felt very much taken care of during the process, I didn’t know anything (I didn’t even listen to the songs) and finally I was able to enjoy the party and felt a sense of belonging.

The public strongly support the BN(O) programme: only 10% oppose it. They are also very positive about migration for work. They are more likely – by more than two to one – to believe that recruitment of migrants is necessary to help economic recovery than to feel that migrants take jobs from British workers. Removing some of the barriers to employment for migrants would mean they can help achieve economic growth and prosperity that can benefit everyone.

By Dr Heather Rolfe, Director of Research, British Future.


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