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A combination of Brexit and Covid-19 has forced UK employers to look for high-skilled workers overseas

The UK retail and wholesale sector has seen a dramatic increase in high-skilled worker applications from outside the EU in the past three years.

Retailers and wholesalers have been hiring more high-skilled workers from South Asian countries such as India, according to Home Office data.

The volume of high-skilled visa applications in retail & wholesale from non-EU countries has shot up by 67% since pre-pandemic (261 in Q2 2022 compared with 156 in Q2 2019).

This was driven by a combination of the changes in immigration and sponsorship laws when Brexit came into force in January 2021, as well as a faster automatisation of the retail sector driven by Covid-19, said Eversheds Sutherland principal associate Corrine Bentham.

In December 2020, the government overhauled its sponsorship regime for employers so that the new rules coming into force ahead of Brexit made it easier for businesses to sponsor foreign nationals for lower-level skills jobs, such as web designer or restaurant manager.

Bentham said the new rules came at a time when retailers also needed to fill more tech roles thanks to the shift to online shopping in the pandemic.

There was a “huge skill shortage” for those roles, which resulted in retailers having to go outside the UK to recruit, Bentham added

The nationalities that have seen the highest increases in high-skilled worker visa applications include India (93 in Q2 2022 versus 20 in Q2 2019), followed by Italy, France and Germany.

Bentham said the sector was “not necessarily sourcing the tech workers at the very high level of skills development from the EU” but rather from south Asia.

She said the majority of EU nationals’ applications for high-skilled visas in the retail and hospitality sector pertained to jobs such hotel and restaurant manager, which have been in scope for sponsorship since December 2020.

Bentham said the costs attached to sponsoring overseas visas also left companies in a “difficult position” as they added to the current economic pressures.

“But then again it demonstrates the impact of skills shortages and Brexit on these industries, the sector’s willingness to spend money to recruit the right talent post-Brexit, and how a good immigration policy is vital,” Bentham added.