Recent news reports revealed that the Tier 2 visa system for skilled workers reached its cap for the first time in 7 years, and for a number of months in a row. This has prompted calls for a review after it was reported that vitally needed doctors had been refused visas. This also had a big impact on the tech industry as non-EU doctors and nurses had filled the limit of the 20,700 visas that can be issued annually. It meant that for the fastest growing industry in the UK, the tech industry, more than 1,600 IT specialists and engineers offered jobs in the UK were denied visas between December and March.  In an industry which is constantly changing at rapid speeds this presents one of the biggest barriers to success for many companies who just cannot find the skilled employees needed to progress.
The industry has been complaining for months that the Tier-2 visa cap is hindering its ability to hire workers from outside the EU and tech industry leaders have been warning that the government’s removal of a visa cap for skilled migrants may not go far enough to ensure Britain continues to attract the best people from across the sector.

Now, Theresa May has announced that the Tier 2 visa system would no longer count healthcare professionals against the cap.  This should mean, in effect, adding another 8,000 or so to the 20,700 applicants allowed into the country every year.

Those in the technology sector have welcomed the news but warned that the extra number of visas will still not be enough to keep the UK’s tech economy in the forefront and ahead of the EU.   Founders of tech companies and funders alike cited acute talent shortages, as the demand for key skills such as data science and AI technicians and tech engineers continues to rise around the world.  The visa system impacts the UK’s ability to attract the best.

Founder of London-based venture capital firm, Blossom Capital, a London-based venture capital firm, Ophelia Brown, said “Talent is obviously the single biggest concern for any founder and any company being built in the UK right now. To build a world-leading company and world-leading products you need access to the best talent across the globe.”

Recent reports have shown that since the Brexit vote, some EU workers are leaving and those coming to work in the UK are not doing so in numbers as they were pre-Brexit, leaving the NHS under pressures with thousands of vacancies for doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers and the tech industry struggling to attract the talent they need and fighting over ever scarcer resources.

At a recent House of Lords EU Internal Market Sub-Committee, urging reform of the Tier-2 visa system some prominent figures from the tech community were invited to give their views and evidence.

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, a private sector led coalition of over 5,700 expert individuals from the tech sector and broader community, said that one of the things that the government can do right now is improve foreign workers’ access to visas and skilling up the nation in terms of digital skills. Shaw told the Committee:

“Things on my wish list that could be addressed now – we need to immediately look at the Tier-2 cap. 20,700 Tier-2 visas is simply not enough. I think we can do things like third party sponsorship of Tier-2 visas, so that we ensure that Tier-2 level is getting the right inflow of talent.”

Shaw also noted, that during his travels around the world, he’s noticed that some of the talent that was planning to come to the UK to work, is “now thinking twice”. He said:

“Because of what I’d describe as the soft power message, what is coming out of the UK in terms of Brexit. We have to project a message about the openness we have here, that we really want to create a global Britain. We are going to have to change that message, because I’m worried and I’ve already seen people not wanting to come here because of that message.”

“If we don’t fill these jobs, these businesses will struggle. The start-ups won’t become scale ups, the scale ups won’t become midsize companies, we will have fewer larger organisations. We need to solve this problem now.”

The deputy CEO of TechUK, the technology trade association, Antony Walker, made the point that non-UK talent plays a “really important and significant role” in the digital sector. He said that talent currently employed in the sector from the EU is about 7-8%, but added that the net contribution has significantly increased in recent years as the sector has grown. Walker added that these are “highly skilled and talented people”, where 78% are educated to degree level, earning between £45,000 and £80,000.

He added, “It’s very, very important. These people play an important role. The sector is growing, so it needs more skills. And the economy is digitising, so the economy as a whole needs more digital skills. So, there’s an increasing scarcity and the domestic talent pipeline can’t meet that demand.”

“We are concerned we don’t want to see a cliff edge when the UK leaves the EU, so in the transition period we would like a situation where citizens coming into the UK would have the same rights to claim settled status through that transition period.”

“And then in time we have to develop a new migration system. And what we are absolutely clear about is that the existing Tier-2 system is not fit for purpose and is not able to cope with the change of status, in terms of losing free movement.”

The secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, Matt Hancock, told the Guardian last week: “I’m in constant discussions with the tech industry about how … we can have a visa system that both controls immigration, and ensures that the brightest and the best talent from around the world can come here.”

He also announced recently that the government was looking at another goal, new start-up visas, to be introduced in 2019. Hancock said the UK would “have a Dragons’ Den style approach so accelerators and entrepreneurs can choose who has the best ideas and then the visa scheme follows.”

Others however, cautioned that even that announcement “affects a smaller number of people than is needed. When you’re building a company, it’s more than just the founder team.”

Some founders are also expressing concerns over the effect Brexit is having when it comes to recruitment.  They say that some potential recruits, who do not need visas, are being scared away by the uncertainty Brexit has created.  One such founder of the Streetbees business intelligence platform, Tugce Bulut says she has lost multiple engineers to emigration since the EU referendum two years ago.

“We had excellent engineers who had relocated to join our company,” she said. “When it came about, they were immediately very concerned about what would happen. A lot of tech people prefer a more stable option in their life, they don’t want to take huge risks.”

One coder returned home to the Czech Republic, quitting his job and ultimately gaining employment with a local company. Several others, she said, emigrated back to their home countries but continued working remotely as contractors – keeping the company staffed, but depriving the UK of the tax revenue they would otherwise have contributed.

She went on to say that even with an expanded visa programme the governments ‘hostile environment’ policy will continue to put people off coming to the UK. “There are two other things that are very important: what is the public spirit like? Why would you go to a country where you don’t feel welcome?

“And the second factor is: what are the politicians saying? What is the political discourse? If there’s an active discourse against immigration – this is the best of the best talent we are talking about. They have a lot of options. They would go somewhere that they feel welcome.”

TechUK’s Head of Policy, Vinous Ali, described the announcement as “hugely welcome” and said the tech sector is ready to help the government make sure the future migration system is right for the country’s needs.

“The tech sector in the UK is going from strength to strength,” she said. “For this is to continue, we need an immigration system that works. Tech workers are some of the most mobile and in-demand professionals in the world, and if the UK wants to be a global hub for tech, then it needs to be open and attractive to the best tech talent.”