Delphotostock - Fotolia

A global, digital Britain will only succeed with global tech talent

Government plans for a Brexit Britain must take into account the international nature of tech talent in its approach to immigration

Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s recent speech to the Conservative Party conference on the future of the UK’s migration system was met with shock, incredulity and dismay across the tech community.

Despite the government’s subsequent but welcome U-turn on Rudd’s plan for companies to be publicly “named and shamed” for their proportion of foreign workers, tech bosses still believe the Home Secretary must think again on the tone and direction of skilled migration policy for Brexit Britain.

UK technology has been the shining economic success story of the last five years, with unprecedented growth from £120bn in 2010 to £180bn in 2015. While the decision to leave the European Union (EU) was not one the majority in tech wanted, there has been a spirit of rolling up our sleeves, of “keep calm and code on”.

We are already playing our role in seizing new opportunities and mitigating the challenges following the decision to leave the EU. The UK’s tech scene is relentlessly innovative and resilient and we will work with government on an approach to industrial strategy and international trade which builds on these strengths.

For a global Britain to chart its new path in the world, it must unashamedly support its competitive strengths in the digital economy. It is the brilliant people in the technology industry, from the UK, the EU and from around the world, who will make UK tech an ongoing success.

One in five startups is started by a migrant. More than half of the UK’s tech unicorns were started by someone born outside the UK. The recent Tech Nation report, produced by the government’s own Tech City UK initiative, showed that 19% of digital technology businesses source their talent from the EU, and 15% of tech businesses source talent from outside the EU. Statistic after statistic shows how our tech success is deeply intertwined with being open to the best and brightest in the world.

It is the brilliant people in the tech industry, from the UK, the EU and from around the world, which will make UK tech a success
Julian David, TechUK

We have an opportunity to create a phenomenal wave of tech-led growth for the next decade, which will produce a rich and vibrant landscape of new, high-value jobs. We need to have new ambition to cultivate a domestic workforce that is prepared for the next wave of tech growth – from the widespread adoption of machine learning and the internet of things (IoT), to our ongoing export strengths, especially in fintech and artificial intelligence.

The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary must now grasp that international tech talent will drive new domestic job creation in their vision for a global Britain. This is not an either/or choice.

Domestic skills fall short

The tech community understands the motivation to boost the domestic skills base, and this is something TechUK has been consistently calling for. The UK has the most pronounced digital skills shortage in Europe, costing the UK economy an estimated £63bn a year in lost GDP. In 2014, 93% of TechUK members said access to talent was a top concern.

Skills initiatives in the UK have, for TechUK members, fallen consistently short of industry needs. An estimated one million vacancies are projected to go unfilled by 2020. The government’s own expert Migration Advisory Committee has recognised we are woefully short of big data, cyber security and software developer talent, and has added these to its official list of occupational shortages.

Read more about Brexit and UK IT

There have been positive steps, including the implementation of the new computing curriculum, which are helping to make that change, but they will take years to take effect. Tech leaders are looking at what more can be done, including making the apprenticeship levy work properly for the future needs of our economy.

TechUK members are taking steps to build the domestic skills base from becoming science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) ambassadors, and working with code clubs up and down the country through to company-based initiatives, such as Samsung’s Digital Schoolhouse and Google’s Digital Garage.

Ensuring the next steps on the UK’s migration policy work for tech will make or break delivery of the vision for a global Britain. Policy-makers must reject the idea that the public is not receptive to skilled migration in strategically important areas such as technology and the digital economy.

A recent report from British Future showed that just 12% of people want to cut the number of highly skilled workers coming to Britain.

The UK has a unique opportunity to design a flexible, agile migration system that is responsive to the needs of the most dynamic and innovative parts of the economy, and also meets the expectations of the public. Solutions are possible, but the Home Secretary must have a dramatic rethink. ............... ..................... ............................ .......................... ................................

Read more on IT technical skills