Home / press /

London still most attractive destination for skilled migrants, despite being hit hardest by pandemic-driven fall in overseas workers

30 Nov 2021

London accounted for nearly three-quarters of the decline in the UK’s overseas skilled worker sponsorships in 2020, but remained the top destination for non-EU skilled workers being sponsored by UK employers, new analysis from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford has shown. 

The new briefing, Which Parts of the UK are Attracting the Most Skilled Workers from Overseas? shows that over the past decade, London has attracted the largest share of overseas Skilled Workers by some distance. Several industries have played a role in attracting these overseas workers to the capital—particularly finance and professional or scientific activities. But these two industries saw the biggest drop in overseas skilled worker Certificates of Sponsorship (CoS) during the pandemic, making London most exposed to the reduction in skilled worker numbers.  

In most other parts of the UK, the Skilled Worker route has effectively become a healthcare visa. Demand for overseas skilled workers in the health sector has grown dramatically since 2014, and by 2020 health was responsible for as much as 60% of all Certificates of Sponsorship for work visas.  

Outside of London, the only other exception to this trend was Scotland, which also has a relatively broad base of industries using Skilled Worker visas, including an above-average share in the education sector. The Scottish government has an explicit goal of attracting more skilled workers from overseas. Scotland also saw a decline in Skilled Worker Certificates of Sponsorship in 2020, but not as big as in London. 

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said, “Migration to London was hit hard by the pandemic. The capital saw the biggest drop in overseas skilled worker numbers, as well as the biggest fall in migrant worker numbers across the board. But even despite these declines, the data suggest that London continues to the UK’s most attractive destination for skilled people from overseas. There is also evidence that London employers are more open to hiring foreign workers than those in the rest of the country, perhaps because they have more experience with migrant workers or are less deterred by the costs of sponsoring them.  

“Outside of London and Scotland, only healthcare employers have attracted significant numbers of overseas skilled workers. Lower numbers of skilled workers in most industries across most of the UK will be partly because of skilled migrants’ preferences, with some destinations simply being more attractive than others. Employers’ attitudes are also important in shaping where overseas skilled workers go, and some employers are more willing than others to engage with the immigration system.” 

In the first half 2021, as the new immigration system was implemented, few EU citizens used the Skilled Worker route. Among those who did, as many as 60% were sponsored by London employers—much higher than for non-EU citizens. This is largely driven by the jobs they are working in: EU citizen Skilled Workers in the first half of 2021 were concentrated in finance, professional/scientific occupations and education.  

London is still expected to be affected most by the end of free movement, however, because it was the part of the UK that has had the highest share of EU-born migrants in its workforce in recent years. Many of the jobs these EU migrants do are not eligible for work visas at all in the post-Brexit immigration system. 

Sumption added: “The new post-Brexit immigration system has compounded the decline in London’s apparent ‘attractiveness’ for migrants, but the reality is that this is probably more of a blip than a long term trend. It seems likely it is more about the specific circumstances of the pandemic and policy change than evidence that migrants are no longer attracted to making a life in London.” 

Skilled workers sponsored by employers make up a small share of overall migration, but they are among the groups of workers with the most significant economic benefits, because of their high skills and earnings.  


This work was funded by the Trust for London

Press Contact

If you would like to make a press enquiry, please contact:

Rob McNeil

+ 44 (0)7500 970081

 Contact Us 


This Migration Observatory is kindly supported by the following organisations.

  • University of Oxford logo
  • COMPAS logo
  • Esmee Fairbairn logo
  • Barrow Cadbury Trust logo
  • Paul Hamlyn Foundation logo