Facing Up To the Tech Immigration Challenge

Editor’s Note: Russ Shaw is the founder of Tech London Advocates and an angel and venture investor who previously worked as a vice president at Skype. 

President Obama’s legislation on immigration has been one of the most hotly contested political reforms for a generation. The Immigration Order, along with Ron Paul’s subsequent bill attempting to overturn the reform, put immigration firmly at the forefront of the political agenda.

The outcry in the US reflects a similar sentiment sweeping across Europe. The rise of numerous right wing parties of varying extremes across European countries has led to immigration being actively curtailed. Anti-EU sentiment also is fueling a desire for homegrown talent in business in this highly charged atmosphere.

However, as arguments on both sides escalate, the technology sector has emerged as one of the few voices of reason. Digital companies are used to operating globally, and innovation is driven by attracting and retaining the best talent from around the world.

In San Francisco, the battle for talent has seen tech companies doing everything they can to win the best recruits. Hairdressers, free food and doctors are all expected as competition continues to soar. The distance between this environment and the national debate around restricting immigration is extraordinary.

Similarly, I have been traveling around the East Coast with the Mayor of London this week and the startups and scale-ups I meet continue to cite talent as a serious concern.

In New York, the growth of tech companies has been fueled by highly skilled employees, but many more are required to continue momentum. On top of this, those workers that do come to New York are proving transitory, moving on after a couple of years. A compelling message needs to resonate worldwide from these tech hubs saying we’re open for business and committed to long term growth, whatever it takes.


Meanwhile, in the UK, government legislation has had a significant impact on recruitment policies and the British technology sector finds itself at a crossroads.

Following a series of high profile acquisitions and IPOs, the creation of tens of thousands of new firms, confidence in the London technology sector is at an all-time high.

However, a shortage of talent needs to be addressed for the industry to fully flourish.

Earlier this year, over 40 percent of the Tech London Advocates group of experts and professionals identified a shortage of talent as the single biggest obstacle facing London’s technology sector. Given the city’s burgeoning position as a global leader in tech, the repercussions of this shortage will be not confined to London alone.

Ultimately, the message from digital entrepreneurs to policymakers is clear. A constant and reliable source of talent must be home-grown. But attracting the best and brightest from around the world is just as important to gain a competitive advantage. This is why the state must ensure that the tech sector is as open and accessible to foreign talent as it can be.

A good example of how this can work is Chile’s “Chilecon Valley”. This hub was founded on the principle of welcoming immigrant entrepreneurs, and the government offered a one-off investment of $40,000 and a year-long work visa. Since its inception, it has welcomed thousands of entrepreneurs from dozens of different countries, and is quickly establishing itself as South America’s leading entrepreneurial hotspot.

The problem with the American debate around immigration and the consistently complex and expensive legislation in the UK is that it creates a perception of hostility towards overseas talent. This is a major influencer for professionals looking to relocate and will directly lead to world class tech experts choosing alternative tech hubs as their place of work. We can’t support industry without supporting diversity.

San Francisco, New York and London have reputations for being global cities. Their success is built on creativity, innovation and, yes, diversity.

In London, we have engaged the government to review visa routes for tech professionals by repeatedly presenting the concerns of the technology community. I would encourage every digital business to do the same. Tech London Advocates has held events in San Francisco and New York in recent months that represent a rallying cry to those who believe that the global nature of technology should be reflected in the exchange of talent, innovation and ideas.

Now is the time for the technology community to ensure it is heard within the immigration debate and ensure the pursuit of digital success is not hamstrung by short-term political point-scoring.