IT departments should find it much easier to recruit skilled staff from abroad following a series of far-reaching relaxations to the UK's work permit regulations.
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Ministers, faced with the realisation that there is no quick solution to the UK's high-tech skills shortage, plan to sweep away the bureaucratic obstacles that have, until now, made hiring overseas workers difficult and time-consuming.
Employment secretary David Blunkett said last week that the aim is to create one of the world's most flexible work permit systems. "We need to ensure that employers can quickly fill key posts where shortages exist," he said.
The relaxations are the fruit of a year of discussions between the Government's Overseas Labour Service (OLS) and employers' bodies, particularly the IT suppliers group the Computing Services and Software Association (CSSA).
Employers in the UK are increasingly going to have to compete with employers in the US, Germany and the Netherlands for IT workers, said Tony Lewis, the CSSA's executive director.
The US has been steadily increasing the annual quota of visas offered to overseas workers in response to lobbying by the US software industry. Germany has announced plans to open its borders to IT professionals. The Netherlands and Austria are also recruiting more IT staff from the UK.
The most sought after skills, perhaps not surprisingly, include Java, networking and other Internet and e-commerce skills. But, according to immigration specialists, demand for overseas professionals with expertise in Windows NT, Oracle and SAP is also strong.
In the past, bureaucratic hurdles have meant that UK firms have had to wait months before they can bring suitable overseas candidates into the UK. This has resulted in companies having to delay important IT projects, which can put businesses at a serious competitive disadvantage, said Lewis. "In this day and age with e-commerce projects, a 12 to 16-week delay can feel like a lifetime."
British companies using overseas IT services firms have also run into difficulties. Offshore consultants often have to wait weeks for permission to visit the UK to assess, cost and plan software projects.
The Government's reforms are already beginning to remove some of these obstacles. The most important change is that companies no longer have to prove that they are unable to find suitable staff in the UK before they look overseas for employees. This exemption applies only to workers with skills the OLS recognises are in short supply.
The fast-track list includes IT managers, business analysts and network specialists. Analyst programmers, software engineers and database experts may also be eligible if they have the right specialisms. The categories will be updated quarterly based on research supplied by the CSSA, the IT National Training Organisation, the British Computer Society and similar bodies.
The second major change is a promise to cut the processing time for work permit renewals by up to three months. Rather than having to make separate approaches to the Home Office, for passport stamping, and the OLS, for work permits, employers will be able to do everything through the OLS. The aim is to cut down the processing time to one week for 80% of applications by March 2001.
"The target for processing applications within a week is laudable and ambitious," said James Dunlop, director of IT immigration specialist Workpermit.com. "The impact of that, combined with taking the Home Office out of the equation, is likely to save more than 80% of the time taken for many applications. It is a real step forward."
Further relaxations will follow between now and the autumn. These include:
These changes could help companies like Energis, which is looking to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia to find its IT and telecoms specialists. The group began looking abroad at the start of the year following a disappointing response from recruitment advertising in the UK. Some vacancies had been unfilled for two years.
For many, though, the Government's plans to open up the UK to overseas IT workers sit uneasily with some of its other policies. The Government's imposition of IR35, a tax regime that will hit computer contractors, could, it is feared, drive UK IT freelancers abroad, negating the impact of the work permit relaxations.
Opposition MPs claim that the Government has tried to divert attention from IR35 by announcing its work permit relaxations several times since the original announcement in the March budget.
"Not only is this the umpteenth reannouncement of the same policy, but the Government is trying to address a skills shortage of its own creation," said shadow paymaster-general Richard Ottaway. "Labour is in the absurd position of seeking to bring foreign IT experts to Britain at the same time as its stealth taxes are driving our home-grown talent overseas."
Whatever happens, it is clear that hiring overseas IT workers can only be a short-term solution. In the longer term, employers will need to do their bit to attract good quality staff into the IT profession. This will mean working closely with universities and making heavy investments in training.