The UK’s tech star is certainly rising. From the growing number of unicorn valuations, to the ever-larger venture capital cheques, British entrepreneurs are now commanding global attention.
Yet much has been said about the UK’s poor track record in harnessing technology and science talent. This is now being addressed – Britain recently became the first country in the world to make coding lessons mandatory. But the effects of these changes won’t be felt for another 15 years. This is why immigration does and will continue to play a crucial role in supporting UK high-growth small businesses in accessing the tech talent they need.
Technology talent moves in trends, with skill shortages invariably relating to the particular technology “fashion” of the time. A few years ago, it was tricky to find iOS developers, but these are now increasingly available across the UK. Nowadays, the biggest difficulty is finding data scientists, or “growth hackers” – those with a background in statistics and analytics. Artificial intelligence or machine learning is big news at the moment; this is likely to be where our next skills shortage lies. My point is that finding talented people is tricky for startups!
The good news is that the UK is an attractive destination for international tech talent – immigration plays, and will continue to play, a crucial role in helping many UK startups manage the technology skills shortage. Anecdotally, among my London-based portfolio startups, anywhere between 50 per cent and 90 per cent of the tech team is not from the UK, with the vast majority coming from within the EU. This again is a trend. When I was a software developer for a London tech startup in 2000, tech talent was predominantly coming in from India. All these years on, the UK remains attractive, thanks to the country’s economic health and cosmopolitan attitudes.
And yet immigration processes continue to hamper entrepreneurs seeking to hire overseas talent. For a startup, hiring is half the problem – hiring talent quickly and efficiently is just as important. Visa processes need to be sped up, and programmes like the Tier 1 Visa – with which people possessing technical degrees could stay for two years – even reinstated, to encourage greater tech talent to come to the UK from outside the EU.
Startups move quickly, but public bodies move slowly. More effort needs to go into addressing cumbersome visa procedures if we are to open the door for much-needed technology experts. Linked to this is a need to reduce the current media and political party rhetoric vilifying immigration – let’s be more overt about the benefits of attracting talented individuals to the UK.
Finally, on talking to my portfolio businesses, there is a real demand for a decision over whether the UK will remain a member of the European Union. Companies cannot operate long-term plans under a cloak of uncertainty, and with a large percentage of technology talent currently coming from within the EU, a potential exit is unsurprisingly concerning.
London has all the tools to be a global technology player – maybe even a rival to Silicon Valley – but we still have work to do in ensuring access to the best global talent.