Immigration is a dirty word - but it's one IT has to address to solve digital skills gap

The political climate in the UK makes it difficult to talk about immigration and its effect on the IT sector, given the wider sensitivities around the subject. But it’s a topic that needs to be considered if the UK is to make the most of the opportunity to become a world leader in the digital economy.

In line with its policy to reduce non-EU immigration, the Conservative government wants to change the criteria for overseas workers brought to the UK by companies operating in this country. In particular, it wants to raise the salary threshold for staff brought in using a special category of visas for intra-company transfers.

The most obvious effect of such a move would be to make it harder for offshore outsourcers to bring lower-paid employees to work on projects in the UK – especially given that the main reason UK companies contract with offshore providers is for access to highly skilled but lower-paid IT experts.

Many tech startups also complain that it is too difficult to bring in overseas talent to help their growth – while the government has to an extent treated startups as a special case, the measures introduced so far have not made any real difference.

And IT departments suffer too – recruitment agencies report huge demand for software developers as digital needs grow, with not enough people available. Ten years ago, there were thousands of Australian, New Zealand and South African IT experts working in the UK to help fill the gaps – but it’s become too difficult for them to get the necessary visas, so they go elsewhere instead.

Does this all matter? Surely it’s right to keep these jobs for UK workers rather than relying on foreigners? Well yes, we all want to see a skilled British IT workforce developing and growing our digital sector – but the reality is that we simply don’t have enough people with the right skills to fulfill the growth ambitions of the UK tech sector in the next five years.

Everybody knows this, from government to employers – it’s estimated that we will need as many as a million new entrants into IT in the next five years. There are more initiatives than ever intended to address the skills shortage, from schools to apprenticeships – but these are almost exclusively long-term efforts that will not address the problem for at least five or more likely 10 years.

When are the international stakes in the ground going to be placed in the global digital economy? In the next five years, that’s for sure. It’s critical for the UK’s long-term success that we have the people needed to deliver growth and development to 2020 to make sure we have the essential foundations in place.

Just look at what we’re up against. Computer Weekly recently visited Huawei, the Chinese networking firm making great inroads into Europe and the UK. At its Shenzhen HQ, the canteen feeds 50,000 meals to workers in the space of 30 minutes. Forget the mass catering challenge – just look at the potential of a technology firm with those resources and that determination to be a global player.

Visit any of the big Indian IT firms and you see a similar situation – hundreds of thousands of first-class degree standard science, technology and engineering graduates entering the workforce every year. We can’t match those numbers, but can match and win in skills, innovation and competitiveness – but only if we have the people in place in these critical next five years.

For IT, the immigration question is not one of taking home-grown jobs – it’s about making sure those jobs exist in the first place. If we miss this digital opportunity, the economic growth and the new jobs created take place somewhere else, sucking the best of UK talent away. That is, at least, one way to solve the skills shortage – but it’s not a solution anyone wants.

The government needs to accept that digital skills have a specific short-term – and short-term only – immigration requirement and make exceptions accordingly. IT employers need to play their part too by committing to training and development for the skills we will need in future, while acting responsibly in their use of IT immigration.

The next generation of UK digital talent – and the UK’s digital economy – is depending on it.

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