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BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Britain said it might make it harder for foreign workers and students to move to the country under a new drive to cut immigration, drawing condemnation from employer groups who accused it of threatening the economy at a crucial time.
Prime Minister Theresa May has said the June 23 vote to leave the European Union was a sign that immigration was too high, and on Tuesday Home Secretary Amber Rudd set out plans to review whether it should be harder for companies to recruit workers from outside the EU.
While acknowledging that high levels of migration can strain local services, employers groups said companies were already struggling with "costly and burdensome" regulation such as a new levy to help fund apprenticeships and warned against further intervention.
Of the 31.7 million workforce at the end of June, 5.4 million were born outside the country, moving to Britain for everything from high-paid jobs in the financial industry in London to picking fruit in central and southern England.
"I want us to look again at whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers," Rudd told the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, central England.
May's government is facing a tricky balancing act between clamping down on immigration while enabling companies to still hire those workers it needs to protect economic growth.
Rudd said a consultation later this year would review whether employers should have to set out the steps they have taken to foster a pool of local candidates.
They may also have to publish the proportion of their workforce that is international and set out what impact they expect foreign recruitment to have on the local workforce.
But employers' groups said the proposals would increase the burden on bosses just as they are trying to navigate the uncertainty thrown up by the Brexit vote.
"Businesses will not welcome further restrictions on high skilled migration from key trading partners around the world," Josh Hardie, the deputy director-general of the employers' group the CBI said.
"At a time when we need strong links globally to seize new opportunities after the referendum, being seen as open to the best and brightest is vital."
Tim Thomas, director of employment and skills at manufacturing group the EEF said the current immigration system was already a "costly and burdensome game of snakes and ladders for employers".
"Further endless changes to regulation will frustrate employers who are simply looking to recruit the best person for the job in the absence of a functional approach from government to the up-skilling of UK workers," he said.
Rudd said the government would also examine whether it needed to tighten student immigration rules, suggesting that those students who studied in Britain were given favourable treatment when looking for a job in the country.
Universities UK said British colleges were amongst the best in the world, giving former foreign students a professional and personal link to the country - a form of "soft power". It also said the majority of students went home after their course finished.
Migration Watch, a lobby group campaigning for lower migration, welcomed the proposals.
Writing by Kate Holton in London; Editing by Stephen Addison and Alison Williams