A need for migrant labour? Labour shortages, immigration and public policy October 2007 – October 2009


This research project aimed to analyse the nature and determinants of staff shortages in key sectors of the UK economy and to explore the implications for public policy. Public debates about labour immigration typically include discussions of its effects on the labour market, macro-economy and fiscal balance of the host country.

A key point of controversy in virtually all immigration debates concerns the role that migrants can and, some argue, should play in reducing domestic labour shortages. The research included conceptual analysis of labour demand, supply, and the role of migrant workers during economic growth and crisis. It also included empirical analysis of these issues in different sectors, including health, construction, agriculture and food processing, hospitality, social care and financial services.

Through the in-depth analysis of specific sectors, the resulting work explores the determinants of the changing shares of migrants in the workforce over time, considers the likely effects of the current economic downturn on staff shortages and the employment of migrants, and discusses policy implications.

Principal Investigator

Bridget Anderson


Martin Ruhs


Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and ESRC (core funding)




GenderLabour MarketsLow Skilled Migration




This project drew on labour segmentation theories, exploring segmentation across multiple dimensions including, but not limited to, immigration status.


This project was grounded in economic analysis, but also relied on discussion of theories and insights from other disciplines such as sociology, geography and politics. The conceptual discussion drew on a small but rapidly increasing multi-disciplinary and international body of research on employers’ attitudes, incentives and recruitment decisions vis-à-vis migrant labour, as well as on more long-standing research on skills, labour supply and staff shortages. The empirical analysis includes analysis of Labour Force Survey data, as well as in-depth analysis of specific sectors and occupations.


The findings of the research were:

  • Labour demand and supply are mutually conditioning rather than generated independently of one another;
  • The term ‘skills’ is conceptually and empirically ambiguous. Therefore any discussion of skills needs to critically scrutinize what is meant by ‘skills’ in different contexts;
  • Employer demand can be explained to a degree by ‘system effects’ that ‘produce’ certain types of domestic labour shortages;
  • The differential use of migrant workers is not simply a matter of certain sectors being able to hire more migrants while at the same time offering low pay. Neither occupational structure, nor part time working, nor self-employment appears to help explain why certain industries have not made use of migrant labour. To better understand the different and changing roles of migrant workers in different sectors and occupations it is necessary to combine both quantitative and qualitative analysis.


Identifying Skilled Occupations Where Migration Can Sensibly Help to Fill Labour Shortages
Reports | Martin Ruhs (Member, Migration Advisory Committee) | 2008

  • Papers (A Need for Migrant Labour?) prepared for MAC in 2008 (no longer available on MAC or UKBA website, please supply with pdf)
  • PB-2009-022-Need_Migrant_Labour
  • Book (Who Needs Migrant Workers? Labour Shortages, Immigration, and Public Policy), OUP, 2010
  • BB-2010-Need_Migrant_Labour
  • Anderson-Ruhs_JPSJ_2012
  • Anderson_Work_Employment_Society_2010
  • Anderson_Whitehead_Journal_2010
  • Anderson_Ethnic_Racial_Studies_2010
  • Anderson_Subjectivity_2009


REF 2014 Impact Case Study (http://t.co/Mor5jnw3Ft)