“We have to stay as open as possible,” says Gerard Grech. “That is so important for any ecosystem.”
As CEO of Tech Nation – a government-backed organization tasked with driving the growth of startups and scale-ups in the UK – Grech has just chaired the launch of a new report charting the progress of a visa regime focused on attracting technical talent to the United States Kingdom.
With a degree of exaggeration, the report announces that tech talent is pouring into Britain, accelerating the industry’s growth.
So what does the report tell us? Well, progress is being made. Between January and August 2022, 659 visas were granted to people coming from abroad to work in the innovation economy. The right to live and work was extended not only to technical personnel, 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 all of 2021.
But let’s step back and look at the bigger picture. Across the board, the UK is facing a labor crisis. With approximately 1.3 million unfilled positions, there simply aren’t enough employees to fill the available positions. There are several reasons for this, including the post-Covid “big layoff” and the political decision to end freedom of movement for European citizens in the wake of the Brexit vote.
The tech sector has some specific problems. Thanks to the rise of start-ups, this is a fast-growing segment of the economy and as things stand, the domestic skills base is not large enough to meet demand. As a result, attracting people from abroad remains vital to the health of the tech ecosystem. That will probably be the case for a while yet.
Against this background, Grech considers the Tech Talent visa scheme to be hugely important. “The economy is now digital,” he says. “2021 was a record year for technology investment, and we overtook China in the first quarter of 2022. This puts pressure on the digital skills gap.”
And as he points out, the focus 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 move easily without too much bureaucracy. Their presence helped fuel 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,” Grech says. “It will draw on talent from all over the world.”
There are those who would argue – and I am one of them – that Britain has made it much more difficult for itself by not maintaining some sort of free movement agreement with the rest of Europe to maintain access to a large pool of skilled workers. . Grech puts a more positive spin on the current situation.
Reaching global talent “is a differentiator,” he says. While economies like those of France and Germany will continue to tap into a European talent pool, the UK can benefit from diversity. New thinking will be imported and new networks opened.
How this will work out in practice remains to be seen, but for the short and medium term it is important that the visa regime attracts the right mix of people. So what’s up?
A mix of talent
Tech Nation manages only part of the UK’s Global Talent Visa regime. The scheme aims to attract people to the arts, science and the digital economy and will allow successful applicants to live and work in the UK for up to five years. Naturally, Tech Nation applies abroad for those seeking employment in the digital economy.
So far, 25 percent of Tech Nation-approved applicants are founders, and the rest are what Tech Nation describes as high-quality employees. Not all of the latter group are software engineers. 40 percent are non-technical people.
How are the choices made then? Grech emphasizes that applicants do not need to be sponsored by individual companies, but they must be able to demonstrate their worth. For example, a founder can get a visa if he or she has a record as a serial entrepreneur or has raised VC money for a specific project. A sales manager should demonstrate a track record of, for example, scaling up technology companies and/or entering new markets.
But will Britain be able to compete for global talent with the likes of the Bay Area? “The US has been doing this for a long time,” Grech admits. “But the UK tech ecosystem has accelerated tremendously and is attracting a lot of talent.”
In the longer term, Grech says trends such as the growth of computer science use in UK universities will help tackle the talent crisis, as will initiatives such as coding boot camps. Still, Britain must remain open to talent. That is why the success of the visa regime is important.