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Cooking has overtaken programming as the most popular occupation among immigrants arriving in the UK on skilled visas, according to a Financial Times analysis of official data that reflects wider changes in the use of this recruitment route.

Some 6,203 chefs were granted skilled worker visas in the year to March 2024, an increase of 54 percent on the previous year, according to figures released by the Home Office last week.

During the same period, the number of work permits issued to programmers and software developers more than halved, from 8,752 to 4,280.

The contrasting trends highlight the extent to which labor shortages persist in low-wage sectors while hiring in technology and other white-collar jobs declines.

The Office for National Statistics said last week that immigration in 2023 would remain close to its record level at around 1.22 million people, with work overtaking study as the main reason for entering the UK.

However, the reason for this is an increase in visas being issued to care workers and their relatives. In the high-paying sectors, which previously issued the lion's share of visas to skilled workers, employers have been hiring fewer new employees.

According to the data, a total of 67,703 visas for skilled workers were issued by the Home Office in the year to March 2024, 2 percent fewer than the previous year.

In addition to the slump in the technology sector, which also affected the recruitment of IT business analysts abroad, the number of visas issued to management consultants in the first quarter of 2024 was 474, 42 percent lower than the previous year.

Visas issued in the financial and insurance sectors fell by 35 percent, and visas for professional, scientific and technical activities fell by 36 percent.

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This decline has occurred despite the fact that many employers seeking to hire foreign nationals have been processing applications at lightning speed in recent months, before the visa fees and salaries they must pay for a worker to obtain a skilled visa rose sharply.

Chefs are among the lower-paid professions likely to be excluded from the visa system in the future, as the minimum salary requirement has risen to £38,700 (or £30,800 for younger workers).

According to the latest ONS data, the average annual salary for a chef in April 2023 was £22,877.

The government's rule change is part of a wider crackdown to help it deliver on its promise to reduce immigration, particularly banning students and care workers from bringing family members to the UK.

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride launched a marketing campaign last week to persuade employers to fill vacancies with unemployed Britons. Business groups reacted sceptically, claiming the labour shortage had pushed individual companies to “breaking point”.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said chefs were “outstanding” as they were one of the few professions requiring sufficient qualifications for a visa, in a sector where six per cent of jobs were unfilled – although the vacancy rate had fallen “drastically” from a high of 15 per cent post-Covid.

The increase in visas for chefs is due to travel from South Asia: in the first three months of this year, 25 percent of visas were issued to Indians, 22 percent to Bangladeshis and 21 percent to Pakistanis.

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Curry restaurant owners have long lobbied the government for easier access to the visa system to overcome a perpetual staffing crisis. In 2019, then-Home Secretary Priti Patel gave in to calls for a so-called vindaloo visa, lifting an earlier restriction on restaurants offering takeaway food.

But Nicholls said the chefs recruited from South Asia would work across the industry, not just in curry restaurants, because of the demand for their skills.

The ongoing labour shortage has also led to an increasing number of jobs in the food and catering industry, such as butchers or restaurant managers, being filled by people entering the country on skilled worker visas.

Accommodation and meals accounted for 17 percent of visas issued to skilled workers in the first quarter of 2024, significantly more than twice as many as two years ago.

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