Exploring UK Immigration Options for the Tech Sector
The UK tech sector remains resilient in 2023; despite global upheaval, it continues to be the biggest in Europe. To hear more on the tech sector’s prospects when it comes to attracting global talent, we have spoken with Anushka Sinha, senior associate at Vanessa Ganguin Immigration Law, who is known for her expertise in the area. In this article, she breaks down latest developments, immigration options and challenges for the sector.
What is the most common immigration route for tech professionals looking to work in the UK?
Skilled Worker sponsorship
Following Brexit, the Skilled Worker route has become the most commonly used work immigration route with over 1,000 sponsor licence applications for skilled staff received by the Home Office weekly. The numbers of employees sponsored under this route has increased greatly. It is a popular choice for tech companies as it is a relatively straightforward way to source a range of skilled staff across different disciplines. Skilled workers can bring dependent family and settle after five years. There are no caps on numbers but there are skills and salary thresholds and vacancies do have to be genuine, among other requirements.
Are there any specialised visa categories or considerations for tech entrepreneurs or start up founders looking to work in the UK?
Global Talent visas
The Global Talent visa has become the greatest accolade our immigration system can bestow on those who excel in their fields.
This prestigious route offers a path to citizenship without any need of a job offer for those at the top of their game in certain sectors including digital technology. It is the most flexible route in terms of employment as it allows successful applicants the ability to be employed, self-employed or both. However, there is a high threshold to qualify: applicants need to satisfy the UK Government’s appointed endorser, Tech Nation, that they are internationally recognised as a leading talent in the digital technology sector. Nonetheless, thousands of tech talents and their families have used this immigration route to settle in the UK and found or work for some of the biggest UK tech brands.
Innovator Founder visas
Another option for tech founders is the new Innovator Founder category, which replaces the Innovator and Start Up routes, removing the old routes’ more onerous requirements (e.g. a £50,000 minimum investment for Innovators). Endorsement that a business plan is innovative, viable and scalable is required by a government-appointed endorsing body.
It is more attractive than its predecessor routes, but not only does the initial endorsement require more administrative hurdles and transparency than many entrepreneurs may want; for settlement after three years, various business targets must be met too.
UK Expansion Worker
While in most cases firms will need an established, operating business in the UK to sponsor staff to come to work here, under this new UK immigration route, an overseas business can send a small team to establish a branch or subsidiary in the UK. Companies established and trading overseas for three years or more can now send up to five employees to set up UK operations. The Home Office will require particular documents regarding your UK footprint, overseas trading and business plans to expand in the UK.
Tech professionals could also avail themselves of the Scale-up route, which requires sponsorship by an eligible scale-up company. However, the main advantages to this route are a lighter-touch sponsor licence process, no Immigration Skills Charge and, most controversially, after being sponsored for six months, the tech professional can then choose to work for different employers in the UK. Although this may not appeal to sponsors who have gone through the time and cost of sponsoring an individual only to then lose them to another employer, it might be more appealing for tech professionals seeking a greater degree of flexibility.
What are the potential challenges or obstacles that tech companies may face when hiring talent in the UK, and how should they look to overcome them?
As Britain aims to be a tech superpower, with our tech sector continuing to grow in comparison to other European tech hubs, the industry continues to require the best talent from around the world to fuel its rapid growth. There are several challenges and obstacles facing tech companies hiring foreign talent in the UK.
Shortage of talent
The tech industry is one of the UK sectors where clients have been constantly facing a skills shortage, and Brexit has only exacerbated the issue. Britain is competing with tech hubs across the world for the best talent and post-pandemic, most of the developing world is experiencing similar skills shortages. In the UK, the US and the EU, vacancies have increased to match or outstrip the availability of people.
Despite the government’s stated ambition of making the UK one of the top global innovation hubs, it has hiked up visa application fees to unprecedented levels and proposes to increase the Immigration Health Surcharge for migrants soon. Like all sectors, tech companies looking to hire foreign talent are now facing significantly higher costs of onboarding migrant talent.
And where does this money go? The Immigration Skills Charge is paid by employers sponsoring migrant workers coming to the UK for over six months. Where is this money spent? Current figures show that, for the year ended 31 March 2023, the total raised was £586 million. If the money is used for the purpose intended – to upskill the local workforce – the tech industry should really start to see a larger pool of locally trained talent available to hire.
We constantly advise companies against the perils of moving too quickly and hiring individuals to work in the UK without the appropriate immigration permission. Often, we are asked about business visitors and whether individuals can commence work here for the UK employer and then apply for their visa and the answer is almost always ‘no’.
To add to this unfortunate news, individuals who do not currently have the appropriate immigration permission in the UK already will have to travel outside the UK and submit their application from their country of nationality (or a country where they hold immigration permission to live and work). Unfortunately, they cannot ‘pop’ to France and apply from there. With timing often crucial to fill a tech role, this requirement may further delay a candidate starting.
Can you share anything about the current trends that you are observing in the tech sector relating to immigration?
Regional tech hubs – We still see that the vast majority of applications are for migrant workers to be based in the South of England. We have lobbied the government for years to increase incentives for companies to sponsor and recruit migrants in more regionally diverse locations, such as Scotland. We wait to see whether this will change in future.
Diversity – Women are still heavily underrepresented in tech and this has not changed from the immigration applications we see.
Why is it essential for tech firms to seek the advice of a specialised immigration lawyer when seeking talent from abroad?
Immigration can often be one of the last considerations in the journey of identifying and recruiting talent. This can lead to unnecessary stress and increased costs to scramble around and obtain visas in time for right to rent checks, job start dates, moves and the beginning of the school term. If a visa application is refused, this just adds to the time and cost of sourcing the talent you need. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced hikes in illegal working penalties too, as well as greater enforcement. Specialist advice on best practices to avoid illegal working practices, how to mitigate and report lapses and how to respond if you fall foul are all essential.
About Anushka Sinha
Anushka Sinha is a senior associate at Vanessa Ganguin Immigration Law. She advises on all aspects of business and personal immigration to the UK, as well as providing seminars and training on sponsor licences and immigration routes for tech figures, other creatives and sectors.
About Vanessa Ganguin
Vanessa Ganguin Immigration Law is a friendly immigration boutique providing exceptional service to businesses, individuals and families. The team of well-respected specialists, led by founder Vanessa Ganguin, who boasts three decades of UK immigration expertise, is a go-to for many legal and professional services around the world, providing positive outcomes for clients in the context of UK’s ever-changing immigration laws.
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