The UK digital industry is one of the most successful in Europe. It now employs 1.6m people and contributes 10 per cent of GDP – that's the highest proportion of any country in the world.
Crucially, tech has benefited hugely from a range of smart government interventions.
The Tech Nation Visa Scheme; tax credits for research and development; the early-stage investments scheme; and the high-growth segment on the London Stock Exchange are all examples of government stepping in to give Britain’s wealth creators a head start when it comes to competing on the world stage.
Since the EU referendum, government priorities have changed and the conversation between the tech sector and policy-makers will reflect that. We must make sure that tech continues to thrive and takes full advantage of the opportunities offered by Brexit.
Comments by the home secretary about the level of foreign workers in the UK have understandably made some British tech entrepreneurs outraged. Tech startups are international, borderless and have an insatiable need for talent.
Shortly after the result of June’s referendum result, Tech City UK conducted a poll of 1,200 UK digital start-ups. Some 45 per cent of digital businesses we surveyed drew more than 30 per cent of their staff from outside the UK. In 30 per cent of businesses, over half of employees hold an EU passport. In 42 per cent of digital businesses headquartered in the UK, British citizens are in the minority – although this does change as companies grow and require fewer specialist tech staff.
So why the high numbers of international workers in British tech?
Firstly, while all industries need a skilled workforce to grow, not all industries are growing at the same rate. The UK’s digital economy is expanding at a staggering 32 per cent faster than the rest of the UK’s economy. It’s like an engine going at full throttle, in need of constant refuelling.
Secondly, those much-needed tech workers that fuel the digital economy are a scarce and precious commodity. Their specialist skills are not yet widespread, though they will be in time.
Thirdly, tech companies do not operate in a privileged bubble. Their innovations have an almost instant ripple effect on the wider industries they operate in, transforming sectors such as banking, healthcare, education and energy. What starts as a tech solution to drive down energy bills, ends up as Bulb, a challenger start-up to the big five Energy companies, offering a more competitive alternative. What begins as a digital platform for more accessible investment produces Nutmeg, a startup which strips out complexity and cost for the high street investor.
Tech entrepreneurs are on a high-speed train, driven by visions of a faster, more efficient and fairer future. Their businesses hoover up highly skilled software engineers, the best digital marketing experts, user-experience designers, and top-tier computer and artificial intelligence graduates. Talent is needed quickly, and for now at least, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.
Homegrown British talent is coming up of course. The seeds are being sown. But it takes time to grow a generation of accomplished coders and AI innovators. Our primary school coding course was introduced in 2014; the harvest from that crop will be realised in a decade or so. The greater our pool of tech talent, allowed to pollinate freely across our green and pleasant land, the bigger our bumper harvest will be.
In a recent roundtable with tech investors and businesses, an interesting observation emerged. There is a vast gap between the quality of the computer science courses at Britain’s top universities and what is on offer at all the rest. We need better, more up-to-date teaching, in tune with the latest tech trends and relevant to what businesses are looking for. We need more experts teaching; at the moment many of the best tutors are being lured into tech companies themselves, leaving few to teach the next generation.
Tech businesses could also make more efforts to train up local staff in the skills it so desperately needs. Some, like the company Unruly, work directly with our universities. But most are so consumed in growing and scaling their business, that they simply do not have the time or resources to take on in-depth training. Match-funding graduate schemes for start-ups could help ease the pain if the application process is easy enough.
We in the tech sector recognise that Government needs to manage immigration and monitor who stays here; our public services and security depend on that. But all businesses need changes to our immigration policy to be proportionate and carefully considered.
They expect to see them communicated in a way that reassures current workers and allows companies to plan for the future. The prospect of a mounting tide of red tape and bureaucracy should be averted, particularly when we face the challenge of Brexit and uncertainties abound.
This is not a case of arguing for special exceptions for tech, on the basis of its fast growth and need for labour. The picture is much bigger than that. The success of tech innovation is integral to the British economy as a whole. Our growth depends on how well we innovate today’s industries and invent new ones. Today’s tech entrepreneurs are laying down the foundations for the jobs of tomorrow. They are future-proofing the British economy.
As the chancellor recently listed – driverless cars, graphene, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, virtual reality, advanced robotics – are all inventions in which UK-based companies and scientists have played and continue to play leading parts. Closing the door to talented and skilled individuals from around the world will be ultimately self-sabotaging for the tech sector that has the potential to be a world leader.
There is so much we can do. Britain has led the way so many time before. Let’s hold our nerve and keep our hearts and minds open.