Tech entrepreneurs warn immigration clampdown could harm start-ups

Founders of TransferWise and Onfido are among those that have called on David Cameron to reconsider plans to restrict flow of skilled workers

The founders behind some of Britain’s most successful technology start-ups have called on David Cameron to change his stance on an immigration clampdown that would curb the flow of skilled workers into the UK.

235 tech entrepreneurs have signed an open letter to the prime minister, including the founders of TransferWise, JustPark, Hassle and Onfido, claiming increased restrictions on skilled workers could inhibit growth and damage the wider UK economy.

With net migration hitting peak levels last year despite government targets, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) is considering increasing the salary threshold for the Tier 2 visa, which currently requires applicants to have a degree level qualification and definite job offer.

Many UK start-ups rely on these systems to source top tech talent from overseas and the suggested increase would make the visa accessible only to director level roles, significantly reducing the available talent pool.

The Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec), the not-for-profit organisation which submitted the letter, previously launched the Save Skilled Migration campaign following revelations that the Home Office rejected 1,3000 visa applications by non-EU skilled workers in June.

The letter suggested that “the UK has become a global tech hub thanks in large part to start-up founders, investors and employees from across the globe”, making reference to the significant number of its signatories born beyond these shores that have chosen to invest their “time and talents here”.

With Britain’s skills shortage worsening for the fourth year in a row according to the Global Skills Index, and UK-based developers demanding increasingly high starting salaries as a result of demand outstripping supply, many start-ups are struggling to afford homegrown talent.

Government body Tech City UK recently announced the launch of a revised Tier 1 Exceptional Tech Talent visa scheme, which saw the addition of four new qualifying criteria to make it easier to attract non-EU talent.

With the country’s digital economy said to be the biggest and fastest growing of all the G20 economies, representing an estimated 10% of UK GDP and rising, the government hopes these revisions will help “maintain its position as a globally competitive digital powerhouse”.

Despite praising the government’s support of digital businesses through the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS), the letter concluded that “any future changes to the immigration system make it easier, not harder, for qualified digital entrepreneurs to come to the UK to start their business, and for growing startups to hire top international talent”.

Alex Depledge, founder of Hassle and Coadec committee member, commented: “It will take a generation for the education reforms to start producing the skilled workforce we need now. I cannot fathom why the government is even considering this.

“I’ve got five engineering roles that I cannot fill. The only way to grow is to bring in migrant workers. Three years ago, the starting salary for a junior developer with two years’ experience was £30,000. Now people with just 12 weeks coding experience are asking for £50,000.”

Eamon Jubbawy, co-founder of background checking business Onfido, added: “The only way we can continue to pioneer is by hiring the world’s best technologists such as experts in artificial intelligence and machine learning, Our team currently represents more than 30 nationalities, with many on Tier 2 visas.

“Reducing the amount of skilled migration could hinder our growth and that of UK’s leading start-ups, as well as have a negative impact on the wider tech sector.”

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