It’s the Groundhog Day the UK tech workforce never asked for. Repeated extensions to Brexit proceedings have prolonged the uncertainty felt by the sector.  

Although there have been efforts to portray the UK as open for business, European workers have been left wondering what their future holds. Should they hold out or hedge their bets on more stable shores? The latest proposals by the Conservative government to move to a points-based immigration system, similar to that of Australia, have brought little extra clarity. 

For London to sustain its digital dominance on the continental stage, let alone globally, the UK needs to strengthen its position on immigration and turn rhetoric into action.

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The ‘French Revolution’ in tech

There may be trouble on the doorstep. Despite record volumes of venture capital investment in London tech, including encouraging contributions from Asia, 2019 has seen the rapid expansion of the tech ecosystem to some of its closest neighbours. France seems next in line to try for the European throne, having reportedly overtaken Germany in terms of investment in its startups. Berlin remains a successful tech hub, so what is France doing right?

The answer lies at the top. While President Macron has fostered an environment conducive to tech investment through labour reforms and access to tax credits, his ‘coup de maître’ has been the introduction of a new tech visa. This has been a key catalyst to French success and, increasingly, a point of differentiation between France and the UK. Its flexibility has been an important factor — renewable after four years, allowing holders to change companies within France, and with fewer eligibility restrictions for businesses and employees than the previous iteration.

Attempts to replicate this across the Channel have not been as successful. Only two of the UK’s new ‘Innovator’ visas have been granted to overseas entrepreneurs in the first three months it was available. In contrast, the French tech sector is actively importing talent and cashing in on the wariness surrounding the UK. Macron has turned Paris into a hotbed for tech investment and consequently an alluring location for overseas talent.

Open the doors wide

With the UK no closer to clarity over post-Brexit immigration policy for its workforce it must adapt to stay at the helm of European tech. Investing in the education system to make digital into a fundamental part of the curriculum, from primary school to university, is important. But nurturing a new generation of home-grown talent will not address the shortage soon enough.

The ‘Startup’ visa and ‘Innovator’ visa routes introduced by the Home Office in April were welcome initiatives and much needed positive engagement from Westminster. However, they clearly need to be re-assessed and haven’t made the same impact as the system in France. We need to go further. Tech London Advocates has long called for the cap to be lifted on Tier two work visas, which would send a message to the global tech community that the UK welcomes them.

Another reason for the success of the French tech visa has been the low administrative costs. To counter this obstacle in the UK the government must introduce third-party visa sponsorship, to both reduce costs for applicants and decrease the administrative burden on the public sector. It would provide a vitally important sector-led perspective, which cannot always be accurately communicated on a visa application.

Finally, the process for an overseas graduate at a UK university to transition from a Tier four student visa to a Tier two work visa has historically been marred in complexity. If overseas workers are proving hard to attract, then we need to make it easier for students to stay and work in the UK once they finish their studies. Some of our most successful UK businesses were founded by foreign entrepreneurs; not only have they transferred their knowledge to the sector but built businesses and traded back to their home countries where they have links. Removing the excessive bureaucracy will incentivise tech innovators and talent hoping to stay in the UK.

It’s now or never

We have the financial capital — now we need to re-evaluate our immigration position or risk a significant shortage in human capital. Brexit may be a prominent reason for the success of the French tech visa as European talent looks to hubs beyond London, but that only places more onus on evolving our system to make the UK more appealing and reflect the positive contribution of foreign skilled workers.

Brexit gives Paris, Berlin and other cities a window to capitalise on uncertainty and catch up with London. So London must send a clear signal to tech talent that it wants them. Amid the political chaos we can’t forget the impact Brexit is having on our most prized industry and its workforce. Britain’s door is half open to overseas tech talent — we must open it fully to stay ahead.

Russ Shaw is the founder of Tech London Advocates & Global Tech Advocates

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