Could Brexit Border Break Britain’s Top Tech Status?

Brexit UK Tech Recruitment

As industry groups start to lobby the government and an increasing number of skilled worker visas are refused, the reality of Brexit is hitting companies across the UK. DIGIT investigates the likely impact on Scotland’s digital technology sector.

The Times revealed this week that lobby groups from the financial services and manufacturing sectors have urged the UK government to reform immigration policy, to avoid those industries losing access to skilled workers.

This follows the BBC’s revelation that in the four months between December 2017 and March 2018 over 1600 IT workers and engineers who had been offered jobs in the UK were denied visas by the government, as they exceeded the monthly limit.

Staff Costs Increasing

The report from The City UK, which lobbies for financial and professional services companies, said that the cost for businesses to bring skilled European workers into Britain could increase threefold if existing immigration rules were not changed. It called for the government to commit to a visa waiver system to preserve the City of London’s standing as a global financial centre.

Miles Celic, The City UK’s chief executive, said: “Britain’s success is built on openness. Being able to attract the most talented people with the right skills, from both the UK and overseas, is a top priority for business leaders.”

The organisation’s report comes after promises in 2017, by Brexit Secretary David Davis, to push for a deal which would allow financial services firms to move employees between the EU and the UK after Brexit. A Bank of England report had warned that 75,000 financial services jobs in Britain could be lost as banks moved staff internationally to avoid restrictions.

Shortages in Science and Engineering

The visa refusal numbers were released by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE). The group’s executive director, Dr Sarah Main, said that job offers in areas where there were clear shortages, such as science and engineering, should be exempt from the Home Office limitations.

CaSE submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request to the Home Office, requesting a breakdown of the visa refusal figures by profession. The response shows that healthcare workers are the largest group to be denied visas, but for the first time, hundreds of IT specialists and engineers needed by UK firms were also refused.

Between December 2017 and March 2018, 1,226 IT specialists and 383 engineers were denied visas to take up jobs they had been offered. In addition 1,876 medical practitioners and healthcare workers, 197 teachers and 584 other professions were unable to take up their job offers in the UK.

Dr Main said: “The tragedy is that this policy doesn’t work for anyone: the government, employers or the public.

“The government repeats its mantra that Britain should be open to the brightest and the best, and yet this policy specifically rejects those people.”

In March, Dr Main sent a letter to the prime minister, asking her to revise the current system. In it she said: “Training and attracting talented people is critical to the success of the government’s industrial strategy and to the UK’s productivity. Productivity will suffer if firms cannot access the talent they need.”

Digital Technology Sector

Is the UK in crisis? Will the ability to draw talent from across Europe and around the world impact the digital technology sector?

DIGIT spoke to three of the country’s leading recruitment specialists about the ongoing issues with Brexit and asked them what can be done to alleviate the problems and ensure that Scotland – and the UK – can maintain its position as a global leader in the digital technology sector.

Gareth Biggerstaff, the CEO of Be-IT, said:

“Individual lobbying groups, particularly from the City, have been pressing their sector-specific claims, based, understandably, on vested self-interest, but, as the article from The Times suggests, more far-sighted and fair-minded businesses now realise that the government must take a more broad-ranging approach.  The government must not only decide what our post-Brexit immigration policy is going to be but also tell us as soon as possible.

“At present, we have an antiquated system that makes it easier for some groups at the expense of others and it’s simply not supplying the people needed across a swathe of key sectors. Prevaricating only adds to the uncertainty and, while it’s a cliché, businesses don’t like uncertainty.

“Irrespective of whether it’s IT, financial services or the NHS, we need clarity and we need it now, otherwise the country is not only going to suffer from continuing skills shortages across all sectors but we’re going to see business take the decisions out of government’s hands by relocating staff to where they think will be the most beneficial locations, whether that’s Frankfurt, Dublin or Bombay.

“From our perspective at Be-IT, there is no doubt that there are many people who would like to come to work in the UK in many of the jobs we have available from our clients.  These people would add real value to our country in all sorts of ways and will include some real entrepreneurs who become the innovators of the future and create more wealth, jobs and, of course, tax revenues.  It is immensely frustrating to see how easy it ought to be to join the dots of immigration policy and equally frustrating to see the lack of decisiveness when this issue should have been at the forefront of the government’s planning for Brexit.”

Rebecca Hastings, the founder of Lucent Group, told DIGIT:

“Brexit will continue to make it harder for Scottish tech companies to attract top talent.  There is already a shortage of skilled workers in a diverse sector that has embraced immigration.  Over the last 18 months it has become harder to attract people with in-demand skills, especially software engineers, from Europe to the UK, and the lack of clarity over post-Brexit immigration is only adding to this.  The problem goes beyond recruitment and extends to retention.  I am aware of businesses where software engineers have decided to return to their original countries where living standards and salaries have increased.

“A visa waiver system which allows businesses to access international talent for periods of up to six months will not prevent a crisis.  Technology companies need to be able to access skilled staff for the long term and the visa application process needs to be simplified and less costly.”

Paul Forrest, the Chairman of MBN Solutions offered suggestions for dealing with the inevitable changes Brexit is bringing to digital recruitment:

“The single question we are most frequently asked at MBN is how is Brexit going to affect recruitment and retention of employees in the future?  There’s no doubt that Brexit is going to take time and a lot of energy to work out, and this is where the first key point needs to be highlighted and that has rapidly become our core mantra… Don’t let Brexit stand in the way of business as usual!
“Calm and compassionate leadership is going to be needed and strong planning implemented to help ameliorate potential challenges not only in recruitment but for retaining key staff. There may be changes in regulations and the need to move some parts of the business to the EU for more direct access. There is certainly going to be a requirement to maximise efficiencies in line with cost pressures that could ultimately impact on recruitment.
“While we don’t yet have a clear path, we have to prepare as best we can. That means creating a plan (there, that’s the third time I have said it) and looking at current processes and procedures and examining alternative scenarios. Our plan in this narrow area of impact has involved us understanding more about different sources for key staff. That doesn’t just mean looking for talent beyond EU borders! It also means implementing measures to retrain existing staff to fill possible skills gap or look at other parts of the UK labour market to explore the prospects of bridging gaps with domestic staff.  Our feeling here is that planning now should see sufficient time to start to explore the detail behind these alternatives and identify future sources for the talent the business needs.
“At this stage, there is of course a limit to how much you can do to immediately answer candidates’ concerns and debate options with client organisations. Until further government and EU legislation is announced, it will be a case of trying to stay on top of our plan – a sensible plan with a set of early warning indicators of the need for action.  My advice? For businesses and HR teams, plan but continue with business as usual; For recruiters, take the opportunity to reinvent yourselves.  Be ready to disrupt and collaborate rather than be a ‘me-too’ recruiter.”

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