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Migration figures could spell trouble for UK tech

Figures show a record number of EU workers choosing to leave the UK and, with fewer people moving to the region, the IT skills gap looks set to widen

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Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show the number of European Union (EU) citizens choosing to leave the UK is the highest it has been for 10 years.

In the year ending September 2017, 130,000 people left the UK – the highest level since 2008, according to the ONS.

The number of EU nationals coming to the UK for work has also fallen, dropping to 220,000 in the year ending September 2017. With approximately 45% of net employment growth in the UK’s tech sector comprising workers from overseas, according to TechUK, this could have a devastating effect on the technology sector.

Sophie Barrett-Brown, head of the UK practice at specialist immigration lawyers Laura Devine Solicitors, said this fall in net migration could exacerbate skills shortages that already exist in the UK, despite what those with “concerns about immigration” might think.

“Skilled EU nationals choosing to pursue opportunities outside the UK is not a success story for the UK,” she said.

There are currently more digital vacancies in the UK than there are people with the skills to fill them – a skills gap the technology industry fears will only worsen after the UK leaves the European Union.

Prime minister Theresa May tried to placate these concerns in November 2017 with the announcement that a greater number of Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visas would be made available, allowing up to 2,000 overseas workers to take jobs in the UK in sectors with high demand for talent, such as technology.

But UK businesses have found it increasingly difficult to hire IT professionals as caps for other types of UK working visas are too low, and limits on monthly visas are quickly being reached.

Pressure to fill vacancies

“The reduction of EU migrants willing to accept roles in the UK, coupled with the Tier 2 cap for employer-sponsored non-EU workers being reached – an event which prior to December 2017 had only occurred once, in June 2015 – employers are under significant pressure to fill their vacancies,” said Barrett-Brown.

Uncertainty for businesses is high, with details such as migration policies in the wake of Brexit yet to be decided.

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Not only is this making it difficult for businesses to make plans, but, depending on how discussions progress, 92,000 jobs in the UK science and technology industry could be at risk.

Swathes of EU technology workers in the UK are already considering leaving, either in the next 12 months or the next five years, which, in combination with Brexit, could make gaining outside tech talent increasingly difficult.

An emphasis has been put on strengthening the UK’s own talent pipeline in the hope that these skills gaps, and potential future shortages, can be filled with home-grown skilled workers.

But some say the UK computing curriculum, which was designed to teach young people computing concepts such as coding and computational thinking, is not enough.

In a global marketplace for skills, the UK has to work on making itself more appealing for talented workers, according to Giles Derrington, head of policy for TechUK.

“The UK tech industry has to compete globally for skills and talent,” he said. “In many specialised areas, tech workers have choices about where they live and work. The UK has to offer an attractive prospectus for those workers and their families.”

Attracting top talent

The need for technology in the UK is increasing rapidly. The number of roles in tech rose in 2017, with firms offering higher salaries in a bid to attract the best talent.

This may not be an option for some companies or industry sectors, however, including smaller firms, which cannot afford this talent, or the financial technology (fintech) sector, which relies heavily on startups and talented people.

Although the UK and its attractive technology hubs remain “resilient”, according to Derrington, it is clearly becoming harder to recruit workers from other countries, and the UK needs to focus on developing policies that prevent further damage.

“The tone of the UK debate around immigration and clarity about future policy is important to prevent a more damaging downturn,” he said.

“It is very important that the UK government is clear, as soon as possible, about the type of post-Brexit immigration system it intends to create. Such a system must ensure that the tech sector, which is so important to our economy and is already facing skills shortages, does not see significant new barriers to the recruitment of talent from overseas.”

While the government continues to develop ways to support the technology sector, the UK needs to focus on developing its own digital skills for the future.

Assessing the talent pipeline

In a poll of large technology companies based in the UK, most said 40% or more of their most talented people come from outside of the UK – a “sad story”, according to Bill Mitchell, group CEO and a Fellow of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

“What this lays bare is the underlying issue that our own talent pipeline is weak,” he said.

“Skilled EU nationals choosing to pursue opportunities outside the UK is not a success story for the UK”
Sophie Barrett-Brown, Laura Devine Solicitors

As well as recruiting and training more computing teachers at primary and secondary level to increase the quality of computing teaching, Mitchell claimed more needed to be done to ensure higher education providers cater better to the skills needs of technology companies.

The UK needs to be “joining the dots” across the IT sector, government and education to ensure “the pipeline is as well connected as possible”, he said.

Many firms have been launching initiatives to try to increase the number of people with digital skills in the UK. For example, Google recently launched a grant to train computing teachers, Microsoft launched a programme in 2017 to improve the digital literacy of more than 560,000 people by 2020, and Facebook vowed to provide digital skills training to 10,000 women last year.

But this disparate approach is less helpful than a collaborative one. Mitchell said employers should engage with each other to serve the industry as a whole, rather than continue to compete for the same small pool of talent.

To find out what digital skills UK businesses need now, and what skills may be needed in the future, the government recently launched a survey asking firms with digital employees to answer questions about the UK’s specialist needs, in the hope this will help it better develop policy in the future.

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