How the new fast-track process will help attract the world’s best talent to the UK

Companies looking to attract the brightest and best global talent have welcomed the announcement from the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in the March 2021 Budget that he is modernising the immigration system. Will the Budget go far enough?

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Under the new plans, the UK will be able to attract and retain the most highly skilled, globally mobile talent – particularly in academia, science, research and technology.By March 2022 the government will support an elite points-based visa for people with much-needed skills to enter the UK. The scheme has been welcomed by organisations such as London First, which represents businesses in the capital.

A revolution in talent

In recent years financial technology and innovative banking firms like Revolut and Monzo have revolutionised the Fintech space and contributed billions of pounds to the UK economy. According to the accounting firm EY, the UK has a 10% share of the global fintech market. “Financial technology is fundamentally changing the way financial services firms operate and transforming the way we transfer, borrow, protect and manage our money,” says Kezia Daley, Senior Associate and immigration specialist at Winckworth Sherwood.An estimated 42% of Fintech staff in the UK come from overseas, and the sector employs more than 60,000 people and contributes around £7 billion to the UK economy. The UK is still the most important centre for Fintech in Europe, and around £3 billion worth of venture capital was invested in UK Fintech companies last year, according to Innovate Finance, the trade body.The British fintech industry relies heavily on international talent. Some 28% of employees are from the EU, according to Innovate Finance.Joanne Dewar, CEO of Global Processing Services, said the move would help aid the UK’s economic recovery, post the “double whammy” of COVID and Brexit.“The UK fintech industry is recognised as one of the beacons of hope in this recovery, as an industry in which the UK is recognised as a world leader,” she said.The HM Treasury commissioned report on the review of UK Fintech (The Kalifa report) highlighted a number of recommendations in which the Government can support this burgeoning sector that is currently contributing £11bn of Revenue and the potential to reach £38 billion by 2030.“One of these was an appeal to address the immediate talent shortage by implementing a points-based visa for international talent in science and technology which I’m delighted to see included in the Budget announcement,” she said.
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A good start, but support needed outside STEM sectors

The Fintech sector needs global talent because there is a shortage of people in the UK with the requisite skills. However, there is also a skills shortage in other sectors, such as Research & Development and academia, not to mention the creative arts, dance and fashion.On the one hand, the UK faces competition from Fintech hubs in Berlin, Barcelona and Amsterdam. Brexit had acted as a catalyst for many talented Europeans to leave the UK amid uncertainty over job security and settlement rights.“The new rules announced by the Chancellor yesterday apply specifically to high-growth businesses in research, engineering, science and tech,” says Yash Dubal, Director, A Y & J Solicitors. “The new visa route, which is described as an elite points-based route, will make it simpler for qualifying businesses to employ highly skilled workers from overseas as they will have less bureaucracy and paperwork to deal with.”However, he points out that talent is a subjective word and that one could argue that chefs, artists and graphic designers are talented and are in short supply.“The new visa very specifically relates to talent in STEM disciplines and addresses shortages in those areas, as included on the latest government shortage occupation list,” he explains. “It also aims to plug potential skills shortages in the Fintech industry in coming years. However, the shortage occupation list also highlights a UK shortage of artists, dancers, musicians, chefs and welders, which this visa route will not help alleviate.”

Will the immigration changes make a difference?

The proposed plans will create a world-leading offering and position the UK as the top destination for the most talented in the fintech sector, says Kezia Daley. “By providing companies the freedom to hire the best in this sector, we’ll see the sector deliver a meaningful return aiding the UK’s economy in the form of jobs, innovation and growth.”  Rebecca Siciliano, managing director of Tiger Recruitment, a global recruitment firm specialising in technology, business support, HR and private (household and family office) roles welcomed the changes. Without access to qualified talent pools, the industry would risk suffering from a lack of diversity, over-inflated salaries and limited scope for long-term growth.“The changes will mean that businesses in their growth phase, requiring technology professionals to innovate and grow, will have quicker, easier access to a wider talent pool of international applicants,” she said. “In theory, it should benefit tech companies and allay their concerns that they won’t be able to access the talent they need after Brexit.”However, Jonathan Beech, Managing Director of Migrate UK, the immigration law firm, says not all sectors will benefit. He has experience working and consulting in UK immigration for the UK Border Agency and two of the ‘Big Four’ global advisory firms namely Ernst & Young and KPMG“Skills shortages exist in engineering, science, education, IT, healthcare, art and music but it is unlikely all these sectors will be accepted into a new version of this style of ‘Highly Skilled Migrant Programme’,” he said. “Fintech, R&D and academia could be seen by the government as jewels in the crown for status and prosperity and Fintech in particular has suffered from skills shortages brought on by less fintech graduates arriving in the UK since the Brexit vote. The end to freedom of movement from the EEA and Switzerland also limits choice. The new rules would need to be a major departure from the current Points Based System in order to meet the government’s objective.”

Making up for Brexit

Matthew Sanders, CEO of global job site Zoek, said he believed the new scheme would help UK businesses, such as those in fintech and other STEM sectors, to remain at the forefront of global business. Brexit, the pandemic, industry growth and increasing demand for specific, highly skilled workers had combined to create real staffing problems.“This is being seen in different ways, with the logistics sector currently experiencing a critical shortage of labour,” he said.In the past year, the pace of business has changed dramatically and companies have had to adapt to remote working, contactless meetings and processing documents online.Zoë Morris, president of Frank Recruitment Group, global leaders in niche IT recruitment, said companies could no longer sit and wait for long paperwork processes to be completed in a post Covid world.“They need access to talent now, particularly if they’re to move forward and progress as we emerge from the last 12 months. A streamlined visa process certainly opens up the opportunity for quicker and more efficient talent acquisition, particularly in those areas who need it the most. Upskilling the existing workforce simply isn’t enough to plug the shortage in qualified digital professionals in the short-term.”

How will the new rules work and who will benefit?

The new rules are, in effect, a reform of existing ones. They will simplify the visa sponsorship process for qualifying businesses that want to sponsor skilled workers. New measures include allowing recipients of international awards, including the Nobel Prize, to automatically qualify for a visa. Migrants wishing to work in the UK who meet the required skills threshold will benefit, as will high-growth qualifying businesses in sectors such as fintech, research and science.Yash Dubal, Director of A Y & J Solicitors, says many high-growth UK firms are founded by migrants, with almost half of the UK’s fastest growing businesses having at least one foreign-born founder. Indeed, 42% of Fintech workers and 40% of science, technology, engineering or maths staff at UK universities are foreign born.“The world is incredibly competitive and is becoming increasingly so,” he says. “China, India, and South-East Asia have burgeoning Fintech, tech and science sectors as have the US and Israel. All are competing to attract talent. Simplifying the visa route makes it easier to compete in the international recruitment market.”He suggests that what is arguably just as important is the political message behind the Chancellor’s announcement. Internationally, Brexit damaged Britain’s image.“The vote to leave the EU was seen as a vote against migration – Britain was pulling up the drawbridge. While the reformed visa route has some tangible benefits, it also gives the PR message that the UK is open for business.”  

Looking to the future

Chris Harber, Head of Immigration at tech law firm Boyes Turner, says that the recent overhaul of the immigration system as a result of leaving the EU means that UK businesses can hire in a significantly wider range of skilled roles from around the world. However, when it comes to attracting the very brightest there has been little reform.Special treatment for “scale-up” companies – the evolved form of a “start-up”, appears to be specifically focused at the Fintech industry as this was one of the recommendations made in the Kalifa review, published less than a week before the Budget.“The government appears to be doubling down on its support of the Fintech industry and is possibly an indicator that they are prepared to take a more sector-based approach in helping develop high potential industries or supporting those that need a helping hand to remain competitive,” he explains.“The Fintech industry is a good place to start as it is showing significant potential and also scalability. However, if this government wants to make serious inroads into addressing the UK’s shortage occupations it needs to continue expanding this approach into other sectors such as life sciences and manufacturing.”The majority of the changes announced in the budget will not go live until Spring 2022, therefore the government will be publishing the detail on these changes over the course of the year.The Home Office has historically been very slow and at times reluctant to adopt new ways of working, especially when it comes to digitising the immigration system.Naomi Hanrahan-Soar, managing associate at law firm Lewis Silkin, said it was encouraging to see progressive visa ideas but it would be key to see how these ideas are implemented and what detailed requirements are drafted into the proposals.“It is encouraging to see some progressive visa ideas that could make it simpler and easier for businesses to set up in the UK and to obtain the talent that they need to thrive,” she said. “As ever, it will be key to see how these ideas are implemented and what detailed requirements are drafted into the proposals. Applicants need both clarity and flexibility to make these work for them and for the UK.”Russ Shaw CBE, founder of Tech London Advocates & Global Tech Advocates, has been championing British tech since its inception, diversity and inclusion, access to investment and international talent, digital skills and training, along with the impacts of Brexit and Covid-19. TLA now has more than 10,000 members and is a driving force behind the ascent of London’s status as a leading global tech hub - bringing together members from start-ups, scale-ups, investors, big tech and government. He said that if the UK wanted a more sustainable, more advanced and more productive economy, it required investment in infrastructure, capital and skills needed to create world-class verticals in fintech, quantum, life sciences and crucially, clean tech."Brexit is in danger of restricting some of our most promising tech firms from accessing overseas talent, which makes the new fast-track visa a welcome remedy to the growing skills gap,” he said. “With big public investment in science and innovation, the government must complement this with a renewed focus on digital skills, working in conjunction with the private sector, to support skilled talent who will fulfil these new employment opportunities.”
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