The UK is home to the most vibrant and dynamic tech ecosystem in Europe. Technology is one of the UK’s fastest-growing sectors, last year outgrowing the wider economy by 2.6x. With access to talent cited as the number one challenge for the UK tech industry in last year’s Tech Nation report survey, it’s understandable that many entrepreneurs and investors are interested in the options available to them to access the talent they need, as Brexit nears. Tech Nation’s report on international talent revealed that in 2015, 6% of the UK digital tech workforce was made up of nationals born in the rest of the EU, having risen from 4% in 2011.
The digital tech economy employs 2.1m workers, who earn significantly higher salaries than the greater economy, in a highly-productive industry.
While the precise details of the UK’s exit from the EU are still uncertain, the UK Government announced that in any form of Brexit, including in the event of no deal, the rights of EU nationals resident in the UK by 29 March 2019 will be guaranteed.
For companies of all sizes, access to talent is vital. The digital sector especially relies on highly-skilled labour to accommodate growth.
Current Visa Routes
At present the UK offers the following visa routes, suitable for UK startups.
- Tier 1 Exceptional Talent/Exceptional Promise
This visa enables the brightest and best talent from around the world to come and work in the UK in the following fields: science, humanities, engineering, medicine, digital technology or the arts. The visa category requires a two stage application process whereby applicants must first obtain endorsement as a leader or an emerging leader in the particular field from the relevant endorsement body. Once they have been endorsed, they can apply for the visa. The endorsement body for digital technology is Tech Nation.
This visa currently allows people with access to large amounts of capital to come to the UK to invest in or create new UK companies. The visa route is subject to reform and its new iteration is expected to be introduced in the spring of 2019.
- Tier 2 Intra Company Transfer and General
These two visa routes allow a UK company to sponsor skilled migrants to come to the UK to occupy a particular role. The former offers existing overseas employees the opportunity to come to the UK on temporary assignment. The latter is aimed at permanent roles and provides a route to settlement in the UK.
- Representative of an Overseas Business visa
This category allows a senior employee of an overseas company to establish a wholly-owned subsidiary or branch in the UK for the overseas parent company. This visa is popular for companies and entrepreneurs with businesses abroad.
Future Visa Routes
The UK Government has mooted the introduction of a new startup visa to widen the pool of talented entrepreneurs able to come to the UK.
Appropriately, this new visa route was first announced during London Tech Week and is intended to build on the success of the current Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) route, expanding it to ensure that the UK can benefit from a wider pool of overseas talented people who are looking to establish new businesses in the UK.
Although detail is scant, it is understood that this visa category will require endorsement from either a university or an approved business sponsor, including accelerators.
Another new proposal is the Innovator Visa, which will be aimed at more experienced individuals, and will be replaced with the current Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) route. This visa will have a similar emphasis on endorsement by a business sponsor, who will assess applicants’ business ideas for their innovation and capability.
Further details on these new visa categories are due to be announced in the spring of 2019. Additionally, December’s Immigration White Paper set out the UK Government’s intention for a skills-based immigration system, to be introduced from January 2021 onwards.
The proposed reforms include positive changes to the aforementioned Tier 2 visa category, and the introduction of a new visa category for short term, temporary work permits. Precise details of these proposals are yet to be finalised, as the Government continues a process of consultation.
Though much uncertainty remains, the status quo is clear. The UK has a number of visa routes available for UK startups to use to attain the talent they need to grow, and understanding them will become only more important as Britain exits the EU.