In his March 2021 Budget announcement, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the government’s latest measures to ensure that Brexit doesn’t stem its much-needed influx of technology talent. It remains to be seen how effective these measures will be, not least because the pandemic has made it harder to determine how the UK’s departure from the EU has affected highly skilled immigration. But if the UK is to achieve its ambitions for global technology leadership, tinkering with visa schemes is unlikely to be enough.
Gaps in the pipeline
The UK government has an avowed ambition to become “a science and technology superpower”. But that aim is jeopardised by the supply of technology skills. According to a 2019 survey by CBI, two-thirds of digital skills vacancies in the UK go unfilled and only a third of companies are confident they will be able to access the digital skills they need over the next two to five years. The same study found that software development and data analytics were technology skills UK business struggle the most to access.
“In some areas, it’s clear that the demand for certain skills is outstripping supply,” says Antony Walker, deputy CEO of industry body techUK. “There are clearly gaps in the domestic skills pipeline that need to be filled, otherwise companies can’t grow to their full potential.”
There were fears that Brexit would make this skills gap worse by preventing tech talent from the EU from coming to the UK. The government took some measures to address these concerns in its post-Brexit immigration regime. A new points-based immigration system, which came into force in January, awards points to applicants with STEM qualifications and skills that are in high demand. The previous Tier 1 (Exceptional) and Tier 2 (General) employment visas were updated, including the removal of a cap on how many can be issued.
But in March, Sunak announced further measures to make it easier for technology talent to settle in the UK. Among these is a new ‘elite’ points-based visa, designed to attract financial technology skills in particular, with a fast-track scheme for workers joining ‘scale-up’ firms. Other measures include reduced restrictions on the existing Global Talent and Innovator visa schemes.
Walker believes that these changes are “very positive and helpful” for the UK and will resolve some of the uncertainty that followed the Brexit referendum. While some may be concerned that boosting highly skilled immigration could reduce employment prospects for residents, Walkers argue the opposite is true. “By bringing in this talent, actually you make companies more competitive, you improve their growth trajectory and make it easier for them to scale at pace, and when you do that, then you create more job opportunities.”
He also believes it will not discourage employers from investing in skills development. “We’ve seen a huge change in the last ten years,” he says. “Companies are recognising that they can’t afford to keep going out to the market to buy in new skills all the time and that they have to build and strengthen their own pipelines. And, therefore, it also means that they have to invest in their skills and talent.”
Still, there is more that the government could do to support organisations, particularly SMEs, in their reskilling and upskilling efforts, Walker says. These could include tax incentives for small businesses to help them in their skills training investment and developing a training ecosystem to support this.
Assessing the impact
Will these adjustments to the immigration regime really impact the UK’s technology skills base? That remains to be seen, says Walker’s colleague Nimmi Patel, policy manager for skills, talent and diversity at techUK.
Previous schemes were not as successful as the government hoped. The Innovator visa, for example, which was launched in March 2019 to “enhance the UK’s offer to overseas entrepreneurial talent“, attracted a total of 14 applications in its first six months of operation. Its predecessor, the Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) visa, had 997 applications over the same period the previous year.
Tech Nation, which assesses applications for tech talent visas, told Tech Monitor in January that it anticipates an ‘unprecedented’ spike in applications this year, in part due to Brexit. The government is due to reveal how many applications under the newly uncapped employment visa scheme have been approved in the next few months. But discrepancies around the definition of ‘skilled’ mean that these numbers may not be conclusive, Patel says.
It is also difficult to assess the impact Brexit has had on immigration, and therefore how effective these visa schemes might be, due to the pandemic. “The immigration landscape is a little bit skewed and we don’t know when it will ever and if ever it will bounce back because of the nature of flexible working and so forth,” says Patel.
Whatever the numbers, policy alone will not inspire floods of skilled workers to move to the UK, Patel argues: there needs to be a convincing vision behind it. “What we’ve always said at techUK is that the narrative around the policies has to be as positive as the policies itself.” She suggests that the government could emphasise the value it places on ‘diversity of thought’ to attract more global talent.
What is clear is that if the UK government wants to succeed in its aim to become a “global technology hub”, it will need to convince people with technology skills to settle there. “Success here will mean being a successful economy in a global marketplace,” says Walker. “We need that diverse global talent in order to help us access that diverse global market.”
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