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Is The U.K.’s Tech Visa System Filling The Skills Gap Facing Startups?


“We have to remain as open as possible,” says Gerard Grech.“That is so important to any ecosystem.”

As CEO of Tech Nation – a government-backed organization charged with fueling the growth of startups and scaleups in the U.K. – Grech has just presided over the launch of a new report charting the progress of a visa scheme aimed at attracting tech talent into the United Kingdom.

Deploying a certain amount of hyperbole, the report announces that tech talent is “pouring” into Britain, thus, accelerating the growth of the sector.

So what does the report tell us? Well, progress is being made. Between January and August 2022, 659 visas were granted to people coming in from abroad to work in the innovation economy. The right to live and work was extended not just to technical staff but also to founders and people with expertise in areas such as product management or sales. And as the document points out, more visas were issued in the first half of this year than in the whole of 2021.

But let’s step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Across the board, the U.K. is facing a labor crisis. With around 1.3 million unfilled vacancies, there simply aren’t enough workers to fill the posts available. There are various reasons for this, including the post-Covid “great resignation” and the political decision to end freedom of movement for European citizens in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Specific Problems

The tech sector has some specific problems. Thanks to the startup boom, this is a burgeoning segment of the economy and as things stand, the domestic skills base isn’t large enough to meet demand. In consequence, attracting people from overseas remains vital to the health of the tech ecosystem. That’s likely to be the case for some time to come.

Against this backdrop, Grech sees the Tech Talent visa scheme as hugely important. “The economy is now digital,” he says. “2021 was a record year for investment in tech and in the first quarter of 2022, we overtook China. This is putting pressure on the digital skills gap.”

And as he points out the emphasis is now on what the government likes to call “global Britain.” In the pre-Brexit era, London, in particular, was a magnet for European workers who could simply relocate without experiencing much in the way of onerous bureaucracy. Their presence helped feed a talent-hungry industry. Today, migration is controlled by visas and the talent pool is seen as global rather than regional.

“I think the tech industry will look a lot more international,” says Grech. “It will draw on talent from all over the world.”

A Differentiator?

There are those who would argue – and I’m one of them – that Britain has made life much more difficult for itself by not maintaining some sort of free movement agreement with the rest of Europe in order to retain access to a large pool of skilled workers. Grech puts a more positive spin on the current situation.

Reaching out for global talent “is a differentiator,” he says. While economies such as those of France and Germany will continue to tap a European talent pool, the U.K. can benefit from diversity. New thinking will be imported and new networks opened up.

How that pans out in practice remains to be seen, but in the short and medium term, what’s important is that the visa scheme brings in the right mix of people. So how’s it doing?

A Mix of Talent

Tech Nation manages just one part of Britain’s Global Talent Visa regime. Aimed at attracting people into the arts, science and the digital economy, the scheme enables successful applicants to live and work in Britain for up to five years. Naturally enough, Tech Nation overseas applications for those seeking work in the digital economy.

So far 25 percent of applicants endorsed by Tech Nation are founders and the rest are what Tech Nation describes as high-value employees. Not all of the latter group are software engineers. 40 percent are non-technical people.

So how are the choices made? Grech stresses that applicants don’t need to be sponsored by individual companies, but they must be able to provide evidence of their value. For instance, a founder might be granted a visa if he or she has a record as a serial entrepreneur or has raised VC cash for a specific project. A sales manager would need to demonstrate a record of, say, scaling up tech companies and/or addressing new markets.

But will Britain be able to compete for global talent with the likes of the Bay Area? “The U.S. has been doing this for a long time,” Grech acknowledges. “But there has been a huge acceleration in Britain’s tech ecosystem and it is drawing in a lot of talent.”

In the longer term, Grech says trends such as the growth of computer science uptake in U.K. universities will help address the talent crisis, as will initiatives, such as coding bootcamps. Nevertheless, Britain must remain open to talent. That’s why the success of the visa scheme matters.

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