Imagine you’re a skilled, ambitious IT professional living outside the UK and you want to maximise your earning potential and your exposure to the latest technology. You’re assessing where in the world is best for you to fulfil your goals.
What are the criteria you use to make a decision? Availability of jobs, clearly. Salary, of course. Culture, climate, tolerance of foreign-born workers, breadth and size of the local digital economy – all these will be factors.
On that basis, it’s pretty likely that you would include the UK on your shortlist – about 18% of our digital workforce did just that and work here now, according to trade body TechUK. Two-thirds of those workers come from outside the EU. This is an attractive destination for tech, which is just as well because historically, the UK is unable to generate enough of its own digital expertise to meet demand.
The new government wants this influx to continue. Its new post-Brexit immigration rules are, mostly, tech-friendly. There seems to be a genuine desire to place technology at the heart of the “global Britain” that our political leaders tell us so often about.
But despite all that positivity, if you’re that ambitious tech expert, would you choose the UK?
Uncertainty reigns over the future relationship with the EU – compounded by bellicose threats from ministers who seem to think that negotiating with your biggest trading partner is about bluff, macho behaviour and shouting rather than collaboration, discussion and mutual interest.
While the “points-based” immigration system coming in from 2021 wouldn’t necessarily hinder you, does it make you feel this is a country that welcomes foreign-born talent? Might you have made a mental note about the anti-immigration rhetoric of Leave campaigners? Would you read stories about foreign-born academics and the difficulties some have in getting the right to stay in the UK?
Look at your burgeoning alternatives in Europe alone – Dublin, Paris, Berlin, the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, all of which are growing homes for tech talent. Further afield there’s Canada’s growing tech sector – already benefiting from Donald Trump’s policies as an alternative destination in North America. Maybe even Singapore.
Being an attractive country to work in isn’t only about visa programmes and the amount of money invested in startups. So much of that choice is about softer factors – often an intangible feeling that maybe this isn’t the right place for you. For many years, the UK felt right.
The government can say as often as it likes, that it is pro-technology and wants to attract the best in science, engineering and digital talent. But that may no longer be enough, and that is a major risk for our post-Brexit digital economy. Ask yourself, currently, would you?