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Why UK tech needs migrant talent

Rules on immigration should be loosened to allow more people with specialist technology skills to come to the UK – according to the Home Office-sponsored Migration Advisory Committee. Tech London Advocates founder Russ Shaw welcomes the recommendation as common sense.

Shaw,Russheadshot260As anti-immigration sentiment grows across Europe and within the UK, London’s technology community has been making the same point persistently, unanimously and passionately – we need overseas talent to grow our local digital businesses.

This week, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has made a series of recommendations to a government supportive of the digital industry. The MAC puts into clear policy recommendation that jobs in the technology sector should be placed on the all-important ‘shortage occupations list’.

In two separate polls of Tech London Advocates last year, the shortage of talent and immigration policy were identified as the biggest challenges facing London’s technology sector. Simply put, our fast-growing digital startups and scaleups are growing faster than the rate of skilled workers generated by this country. Indeed, by 2020 it is estimated there will be a deficit of 300,000 digitally skilled employees in London.

The impact of the current immigration policy is both time-consuming and costly, neither of which the majority of startups and scaleups can afford. The danger is that legislation will sap the momentum out of our fastest-growing sector and leave our most innovative entrepreneurs effectively hamstrung.

In the past 12 months, the Home Office has engaged with London’s tech community through a number of ‘Home Office Hours’ events, workshops where Home Office representatives and lawyers from immigration specialists Penningtons Manches give free advice to entrepreneurs. This has been very helpful to the sector – but more is needed.

At the start of the year, Tech London Advocates and techUK arranged a ‘tech tour’ of Level39, Unruly Media and Passion Capital for MAC chair Sir David Metcalf to meet some of the city’s most exciting digital companies. From Canary Wharf to Old Street, digital entrepreneurs told their growth stories, explaining how they struggled to recruit the talent required to fulfill potential.

The MAC recommendations start to answer this call. If implemented by the government, tech companies would be able to hire the best talent to fill their vacancies and, in the process, consolidate London’s position as a truly global centre of tech excellence.

In the past, the government has not rejected reports from the MAC – so this should be a significant breakthrough for the sector.

The introduction of computing into the national curriculum last year was a big step forward for ensuring young people are equipped with the digital skills required to succeed in technology. No other country has computing so embedded into its education system. Tech City UK’s Digital Business Academy and organisations such as Makers Academy and Decoded are making digital talent more accessible than ever before.

Let me be clear. Overseas talent must not replace British workers. No one in the technology community is asking for radical change to immigration policy but rather a dual approach – legislation that lets the right talent from around the world into the country and continued investment in the education institutions and private organisations providing digital skills to the next generation of British talent.

The digital sector moves quickly and very few anticipated the extraordinary success of the past few years. The current tech landscape has room for British workers and overseas experts alike.

Rather than proceeding with a fundamentally protectionist approach that protects too small a group, the MAC recommendations should send a message to the wider tech ecosystem – Britain’s burgeoning digital sector continues to be open for business with aspirations to be world leading.