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Considering hiring overseas talent?

13 February 2020

The process of sponsoring a visa for an overseas national is not usually a straightforward one, either for the practice offering employment or the prospective employee.

A new immigration system will be introduced in the UK at the end of 2020, with changes that are yet to be announced. We do know that, as a consequence of Britain's exit from the European Union, the distinction with regard to visa applications between EU nationals and other non-UK nationalities will no longer apply after December 31.

Until then, under the current system, a candidate will typically require a ‘Tier 2’ visa to work in the UK. If an individual is already in the UK on a ‘Tier 4’ student visa, the process is a little more straightforward. But it is still demanding for both employer and student alike.

The situation improved with the addition of ‘all architecture roles’ to the UK government’s Shortage Occupation List (SOC). A practice no longer has to demonstrate that there is no suitable UK candidate for the same position - the ‘resident labour market test’.

However, there are salary thresholds applicable to the granting of a Tier 2 visa: £22,300 for a Part 1 graduate; £24,600 for a Part 2; £29,000 for a Part 3 or newly registered architect with fewer than three years’ experience, and £33,200 for an experienced worker.

Salary thresholds are one of numerous issues that the RIBA has investigated in its research reports Powered by People and Global Talent, Global Reach. The RIBA has been working proactively with the UK government to try to ensure that the new immigration system of 2021 is supportive of architects.

“Over the last 18 months, we have found it far easier to sponsor employees,” reveals Katie Atkinson, HR Manager and Associate at Grimshaw. “This is mainly due to visa salary requirements being lowered and the skills shortage list addition.”

“Unfortunately this process has become more expensive, while time taken to obtain additional Certificates of Sponsorship and general processing seems to be increasing.”

A practice must obtain a sponsorship licence by applying to the Home Office. There is a fee incurred: £536 for businesses with an annual turnover of less than £10.2m or with fewer than 50 employees, Most of the information required is to establish that the business is genuine and able to support an overseas worker. 

Some employers will engage a legal adviser to make sure this process is completed smoothly. One law firm among the many specialists in immigration and employment is Davidson Morris, who publish a guide to the licence application process.

Only holders of a valid sponsorship licence can issue a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) to an individual they want to employ under the Tier 2 route. Armed with the CoS and a confirmed job offer, the prospective employee can then apply for a Tier 2 visa.

The UK government will be introducing a new immigration system at the start of 2021. Currently, practices wishing to sponsor an employee's Tier 2 visa must apply to the Home Office for a sponsorship licence.

These are initially granted for three or five years, or for the duration of the employment contract, if shorter. There are conditions for the employers, such as a duty to notify the Home Office of any unexplained absences or a termination of employment, with penalties for any failure to comply.

Barbara Kaucky, chair of the RIBA Small Practice Group, has been through the process. The architectural assistant her practice employed did much of the legwork to obtain the Tier 2 visa, but Kaucky is critical of the inflexibility of the Home Office rules.

“It is a bit like a marriage,” she suggests. “The employee is tied to the practice and cannot move to gain experience elsewhere without beginning the visa application process all over again. This uncertainty puts a lot of pressure on a young architect.”

One common scenario is where a practice wants to offer a job to a Tier 4 student who has been working for them part-time (and perhaps full-time outside of term) on completion of their studies.

Switching from Tier 4 (where the sponsor is the university) to Tier 2 has always been free of the resident labour market test. Tier 4 students with an offer of employment can apply to switch to Tier 2 up to three months before the completion date of their course (degree level is the minimum). Students must remain in the UK during the application process.

“Grimshaw is committed to recruiting the best staff available for all our studios, which means that we inevitably sponsor a large number of our employees for visas,” Katie Atkinson concludes.

The practice will be paying close attention to any news of the government’s plans for the immigration system in 2021.

“Having a wide pool of talent available to us, as well as promoting internal mobility between global studios, means that we constantly work with and evaluate immigration rules as they change over time.”

The Home Office has extensive guidance for employers on sponsoring a Tier 2 worker and for students wanting to switch to Tier 2. Students are recommended to access the UK Council for International Student Affairs for further advice, and to consult any advisers at their school of architecture.

Thanks to Barbara Kaucky, Director, erect architecture; and Katie Atkinson, HR Manager and Associate, Grimshaw.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas

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Posted on 13 February 2020.

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