Could the start-up scene in the UK collapse if we do not create a suitable visa program for europeans?

London is arguably the tech-hub and heart of the start-up community in Europe, with some people even comparing it to Silicon Valley. However, I am afraid that this incredible opportunity could disappear depending on how we manage some operational details once the UK is outside the EU.

Before I continue, I feel it is important to share some personal details to provide some context. I am, as many others, an immigrant. I moved to the UK in 2009 to do my Ph.D. in London. Later, I became the co-founder of Signal Media, which is now a growing and successful company. From a personal point of view, I met the love of my life while at university. I have always felt extremely grateful to the UK and London in particular, and I spend a lot of time trying to give back as much as I can, especially to universities, startups and the research community. This ranges from giving talks, organising conferences and meet-ups or just advising different companies, universities, and people. More importantly, Signal employs now around 50 people and we are improving the productivity of our clients (with many UK companies among them).

Now that I have explained where I come from, I can describe the future that I fear we could be moving towards. Imagine we are in 2020, the UK has successfully split from the EU and European citizens are no longer free to move between the EU and the UK. Under this scenario, every EU citizen requires some type of visa to access the UK. We begin to see a dramatic decline in the creation of start-ups in the UK, while other European cities such Berlin, Madrid, Stockholm or Dublin see a clear upwards trend. Despite the best intentions of the government, start-ups cannot find skilful labour quickly enough. There is a clear lack of people with expertise in coding, AI, SaaS marketing, design and other key skills for tech companies. Overall, this has a massively detrimental effect on the UK economy.

Coming back to the present, I have no doubt that the government will address other challenges that Brexit will create such as new trade agreements, research collaborations and talent acquisition for large corporations. However, I have serious doubts that they are ready to provide small companies and start-ups the tools they need to ensure the access to talent we will require in the years ahead. I believe that the likelihood of this pessimistic future happening depends largely on the government’s implementation of UK immigration policies for skilled labour and the details of a “European visa”.

The UK digital economy has a huge demand for skilled labour. This is great news, as it implies the growth of the sector. However, for this demand requires either the creation of that talent in the UK or the capability of importing such talent from other territories. Unfortunately, the UK has proven unable to produce enough skilled labour and therefore the only logical conclusion is that we need to import talent from outside the UK in order to continue growing. In the case of a startup, employees and founders are already overstretched, with people acting simultaneously in a multitude of roles. Any visa sponsorship program, as some have suggested, adds additional complexity and will require significant effort. Also, it is likely to have a cost for the company, and while this will not be a problem for large companies, it is likely to be prohibitively high for a start-up. Currently, the visa sponsorship program forces the company to advertise the role for approximately a month in order to prove that there is a lack of candidates from the UK. While this sounds like a reasonable request, in reality, it does not work, at least in the start-up world. First of all, if we identify a role as being “highly in demand and needed by the UK economy”, why would we need any time restriction on the advertising if the UK talent pool is already not meeting the demand? Forcing companies to list roles for a month will not have any impact (as they have probably already looked in the UK) but it slows down the hiring process in our fast-paced industry,where waiting an extra month for those key hires can have huge implications for the business. An even more detrimental factor is that a minimum salary is stipulated. This means that even if a company has proven that there is a lack of candidates for a junior/mid position in the UK, they cannot hire a person in that salary range. How is this helping the UK economy?

The UK is also one of the preferred destinations for international university students and thousands of people travel to different cities such as London, Cambridge, or Oxford from all over the world to get their education. However, unless we change the visa model (at least for high demand roles), some are forced to leave as soon as they have concluded their studies and return to their countries. This perpetuates the counter-intuitive model of training the next generations of tech innovators in the UK’s fantastic universities (at a cost for all the taxpayers) just to push them away to other countries, which will benefit from the training the UK has given them. At a point when the tech industry is begging for more talent, this is madness…

One potential solution from the government for some of this problems is the current Tier 1 visa (for “exceptional talent”). However, this leaves it up to the individual to prove they are leaders in their field and this presents two problems. Firstly, technologists tend to be humble and would rarely refer to themselves as “leaders”. Therefore, they may not apply to the visa scheme unless convinced by a company. Secondly, how do you prove you are a “leader” worth a visa? This might be reasonable easy with academics given the clear ‘badge’ of degrees (e.g., PhDs) and publication records, but this type of language is not compatible with the nature of the jobs that startups need to fill.

I understand this is a very complex problem where every decision could have unintended consequences. Also, I would like to acknowledge that several great organisations and individuals (e.g., Coadec or  Tech London Advocates) are addressing these challenges and lobbying the government. Nonetheless, I would like to raise my voice to suggest some proposals that might decrease the pain for start-ups and help the UK economy to continue growing.

  1. Reduce the minimum salary to a level that will allow for junior positions to be filled for a list of high demand jobs (e.g., data scientist).
  2. Provide an “after study” 1 year visa for any person finishing a BSc or MSc in any of the high demand areas of expertise.
  3. Provide a 1 year visa for any person finishing a Ph.D. within the UK.
  4. Simplify and reduce the Talent visa requirements, especially for those people with extensive experience in high demand areas of expertise and/or PhDs.
  5. Create a new knowledge transfer and innovation visa similar to the Talent Visa but aimed at shorter visits for early-career researchers and academics.
  6. Remove the required 1 month of advertising for those roles that are already in “high demand” within the UK.

I do believe we have the opportunity to continue being the driving force of innovation in Europe, but in order to do so, we have to understand and support our start-up and small businesses environment. If we do so, the future will be bright. Otherwise, we might lose our privileged role in the digital economy…

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