Fears and questions over Brexit’s impact on talent

While UK tech founders continue to try to second guess what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ actually means for the future of immigration and access to talent, the UK’s digital minister, Matt Hancock, has confirmed it will not mean a clone of the Australian points-based immigration system – despite politicians frequently citing this system as a possible model for the UK to adopt during the Brexit campaign.

“The Prime Minister has essentially ruled out the Australian-based system precisely,” said the minster in response to a question about the future of the UK’s immigration policy, post-Brexit. Hancock was speaking during a panel debate about the impact of Brexit here at TechCrunch Disrupt London.

“Of course there’ll be a plan put in place,” he added — avoiding divulging any detail on what exactly that plan might be.

But at least we know exactly what it won’t be: Australia’s immigration system.

Balderton partner, James Wise, who was also on the panel, discussed the results of a survey the VC firm had conducted ahead of the conference, asking its UK portfolio companies what concerned them most about Brexit. Unsurprisingly the startups’ biggest fear is continued access to talent.

The number one thing overriding everything else is access to talent.

“The number one thing overriding everything else is access to talent,” said Wise. “This makes a lot of sense. The tech community is particularly reliant on migrant workers. If you look at all of the industries within the UK, within the top ten you see computer programming and scientific research as a percentage of migrants within their workforce.”

“The UK is still the number one nation that people look to for work in tech roles outside of their home country across Europe – and that’s not really changed a lot since the Brexit vote… And the UK’s benefitted massively from this,” he added.

One of the reasons its startups are concerned about access to talent is the narrative around immigration, according to Wise.

“The first thing we need to do is make sure that the companies that are here today, that have been successful, get the recognition that they deserve and are continuing to be championed – because a lot of the challenges that we’re going to have is making sure that the world thinks of us as still an open and attractive place to come and work,” he added, noting that a large proportion of startups founded in the UK have non-UK founders.

And while Wise conceded the current UK tier 2 visa system will have to change, post-Brexit, he argued it will need to change “at some scale” if the UK’s startup ecosystem is to have the talent pipeline it needs to continue growing.

“We conservatively estimate there’s about 41,000 hires made of non-natives into the UK startup ecosystem each year, and right now there’s 20,000 tier 2 visas for every industry – so we’re going to have to change that,” he said.

Wise also agitated for the visa process to be speeded up considerably. “For an industry that’s clichéd motto is move fast and break things, we are going to have to radically change the way that we process visas. Because right now it takes about three weeks to hire someone without a visa and about 16+weeks to hire someone with a visa.”

Hancock avoided getting into any detailed discussion about the future structure of the UK’s visa system — choosing instead to emphasize the government wants to continue to attract top talent from around the world, not just from Europe, which was another line deployed by Brexiteers during the referendum campaign.

“There’s a huge amount of talent in the UK, in UK tech startups, both European and from the rest of the world outside Europe. And that shows that even with a visa system that we’ve had with the rest of the world, we’ve been able to be that global magnet for talent that we want to continue to be – and we want to continue to attract the brightest and the best from right around the world,” Hancock said.

“You can’t just see this through the European lens. You’ve got to see this through the lens of what is the talent we need,” he added.

Also speaking on the panel, French government minister Axelle Lemaire, who dubbed the populist ‘Donald Trump’ style movement that delivered the Brexit vote the “elephant on the room”.

“Who voted for the Brexit? That is the real political challenge,” she said. “I think it’s all very well to talk about how are we going to attract the best talent in London — but will they feel welcome by the rest of country? And what is being done to address the future of the country as a whole? And to ensure that innovation is as inclusive as possible.”

Lemaire also warned Brexit poses a serious threat to the UK’s lead in research because of losing access to European research grants.

“Startups might not see it but the reason why the UK is so good in innovation is because they’re in the capacity to attract the best researchers in the world… But the researchers are extremely worried at the moment because when you enter into a research contract it’s for a minimum of five years. If you work on artificial intelligence at the moment you do need European grants and fundings.

“And startups do benefit from transfers of technologies coming from research centers — so what is going to happen if on one hand, UK government passes tax deals for big companies… but on the other hand they do not have the ability to fund the long term investments that are still needed to anchor this whole innovative economy.”

“We’re asking ourselves these same questions, but I believe the answer is easier to find at the European level,” she added.