It’s time to grasp the immigration nettle

Britain’s tech firms will struggle to keep up with the pace of global business if the barriers to foreign talent remain, argues Quill founder Ed Bussey

According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, over three quarters of the UK public want to see a reduction in immigration.

Yet ask a business audience and you will get a different response. At an event I spoke at recently, over 300 UK entrepreneurs were asked if they would liberalise the immigration system. Hardly a hand stayed down.

The reason is simple. Great businesses need great talent to go the distance, and here in the UK, our economy is creating highly-skilled jobs faster than it can fill them. My own company, Quill, has a team of 20 and is currently running 17 vacancies as we continue to grow at a rate of over 100% year on year.

And there are hundreds of fast growth companies like Quill with the same issue across the country. Quite simply, our education system does not produce the volume of programmers, engineers and mathematicians to satisfy the demands of Britain’s tech sector.

That means the search for talent must be a global one. To build world-beating companies out of the UK, we have to be able recruit the world’s best talent. Yet too many entrepreneurs are finding their hands tied by restrictive regulations around hiring from overseas.

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Bureaucracy holding back world’s best talent

As things stand, companies looking to bring talent to the UK from outside of the EU must apply for a specialist Tier 2 visa. In 2013 just 10,179 such visas were granted, well below the 20,700 cap. Far from reflecting a lack of demand, these figures are testament to the laborious and time-consuming nature of the process.

This bureaucratic glass ceiling is a particular issue for small businesses, which don’t have the specialist HR and legal teams – or budget – that are needed to take on the administrative burden. Given that these are the firms with the greatest potential for explosive growth, and currently – in aggregate – the largest source of new employment creation in the UK, generating the high value jobs of future, this is a problem that demands urgent attention and radical solutions.


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At the same time, there is a game-changing opportunity at hand for Britain, if we can tune the immigration system to the needs of our entrepreneurs and fast-growth businesses: we can become a hub for the international technology and digital talent that other competing economies are turning away.

In 2012, the US reached its high-skill immigration cap of 65,000 in just five days. Last year Silicon Valley’s top brass, including the CEOs of both Facebook and Yahoo, sent a letter to President Obama setting out the desperate need for America’s “outdated and inefficient” immigration system to be reformed.

Making Britain a destination for immigrants

Britain needs to position itself as the destination-of-choice for the very people that Silicon Valley is also struggling to bring in, and set out its stall as a global marketplace for the world’s best talent and ideas.

We must also capitalise on the overseas skills already here in the UK’s universities. Non-EU students make up 32% of Britain’s engineering and technology undergraduates and 22% of computer science undergraduates.

And yet following the abolition of the post-work study visa, it is being made far too difficult for international students to remain in this country and find employment. The limit on Graduate Entrepreneur visas stands at a paltry 1,900, and just 129 were granted in 2012. The likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and UCL are huge magnets for international talent; talent that could power our businesses that Britain is letting slip through its fingers as things stand.

Of course, providing our businesses with access to the requisite talent pool isn’t only a question of immigration reform; in the long term we also have to make sure we’re boosting our homegrown skills pool.

Creating a pipeline of homegrown talent

That we need to reconnect science and business in the minds of young people is no secret. According to the Department for Education over 60% of young people aspire to a career in business, compared to just 17% in maths or science.

That in turn translates to the fact that only around 2.1% of students in higher education study Mathematical Sciences, while undergraduate numbers in Computer Science fell by 3% in the last year alone. What we need are big increases in the numbers of young people studying these subjects, to create a pipeline of homegrown talent for tech firms.

However, the reality is that doing so will take time – maybe a decade – and tech can’t afford to wait around for education to catch up. I need the best developers, the best analysts, the best talent today. This is the single biggest brake on our efforts to scale Quill – not a lack of clients, not a lack of opportunity, but a shortage of the necessary skills.

In the short term, the urgent requirement is to remove the barriers entrepreneurs face in accessing talent from across the world. To help us build the worlds’ best companies out of the UK, we need to be able to pull in the world’s best talent. That means grasping the immigration nettle intelligently – ensuring it meets todays’ needs of our most promising, fast growth companies.

Ed Bussey is founder and chief executive of Quill, the global content creators. He is a member of the Tech London Advocates immigration working group.

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  1. Nick Leslie-Miller
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    There are plenty of skilled workers within the EU that will fill all skills. You just need to look.