Despite growing reliance on global talent in the UK fintech sector, current immigration rules are proving challenging for employers, as immigration lawyer Anne Morris explains.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that ambitions for Britain to become a global leader in tech will only be realised where UK companies are able to access the international talent market.
Currently, 14% of UK tech workers are nationals of non-EEA countries. This figure is expected to rise as the resident labour market continues to fall short in satisfying the skill demands in tech and as EU workers tire of Brexit uncertainty and leave the UK to take up opportunities elsewhere.
An increasing dependence on a migrant workforce runs in direct opposition to the current position of UK immigration. Our immigration rules are tough, visa options under the UK’s points-based system (PBS) are limited and UK immigration policy is being regarded across the globe as increasingly hostile.
It’s against this backdrop that tech companies are having to forge ahead with hiring from overseas to meet their recruitment needs.
A number of UK visas are potentially available to tech workers:
Tier 2 for highly skilled workers
The Tier 2 visa allows skilled non-EEA nationals to work for a licensed sponsor in the UK for up to five years.
While there are many pros to the Tier 2 visa for employees, including the ability to bring dependants to the UK and the potential to apply to settle here, there are a number of considerations for employers to take into account when assessing the suitability of this route.
Tier 2 visas are only available for certain roles that meet the required standard for skill. The role must also offer an appropriate salary above the minimum threshold, and applicants will be required to demonstrate adequate knowledge of the English language.
To hire under Tier 2, employers must first apply to the Home Office for a sponsorship licence. Sponsor licence holders operate under strict, ongoing and, frankly, onerous immigration compliance duties that apply throughout the employee lifecycle.
Breaching your sponsor licence duties could result in the sponsor licence being downgraded, suspended or even revoked, and impacting the organisation’s ability to hire Tier 2 workers.
The cost of hiring under Tier 2 is a key concern for employers, and in many cases can be prohibitive. Fees range from the sponsor licence application fee itself to various additional charges such as the Immigration Skills Charge, Certificate of Sponsorship fee and the Immigration Health Surcharge.
Tier 5 for temporary workers
The Tier 5 route offers a number of visas for different types of worker and will also generally require the employer to be a licensed sponsor. The Tier 5 Youth Mobility visa however does not require a sponsor licence, and could be open to tech workers.
Under the Youth Mobility scheme, nationals between the ages of 18 and 30 from participating countries can live and work in the UK for up to two years. Holders can enter and leave the UK at any time while the visa is valid.
The Tier 5 Youth Mobility visa may offer a more commercially viable and cost-effective solution than Tier 2 in addressing short-term skills gaps, free from the ongoing financial and administrative burdens of hiring with a sponsor licence.
There are however notable restrictions on the Youth Mobility route. For example, it is only available to nationals of specific countries, which limits the potential talent pool for employers.
In addition, the visa holder will be required to return to their home country on visa expiry. Retaining a Tier 5 employee beyond the two years will require forward planning to understand options and take action before the visa runs out. For example, if eligible to switch to Tier 2, it will require the worker to return to their home country to make the application.
Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa
The Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa offers relatively relaxed criteria for tech companies hiring from overseas. The visa is granted for a maximum of five years, after which an applicant can apply for UK settlement.
Aimed at non-EEA nationals who are considered to be exceptionally talented in fields including digital technology, holders may be employed or self employed, work for any employer and take up employment in any sector at any level – a clear advantage over the Tier 2 with its restrictions on role and salary and the requirement for the employer to be licensed.
There is a two-stage application process. Applicants must first be endorsed as 'exceptional talent' by the relevant sector body. For the tech sector, this is Tech Nation. If the applicant is successfully endorsed, the next step is to make the visa application to the Home Office. The usual requirements for maintenance and sufficient English language do not apply to this visa.
If an applicant cannot meet the qualifying and/or mandatory criteria, but has evidence demonstrating potential to do so in the future, they may be able to apply as a candidate with exceptional promise.
Last year the government doubled the number of exceptional talent visas available to tech workers. However, the number of foreign nationals approved for technology visas actually fell, with hundreds of applications for the scheme rejected.
From experience, we see many Tier 1 Exceptional Talent applications that fall way below the required standard. Whatever an applicant’s background, skills or capability, however high achieving they may be, they will need to demonstrate through their application submission that they tick Tech Nation’s boxes. Complete the form fully and accurately; collate and submit comprehensive supporting documentation; build a case that is credible and compelling.
This route remains generally undersubscribed, but with the right approach to the application, it has the potential to offer more applicants opportunities in the UK.
Future access to global tech talent
International talent is proving to be a critical enabler for UK tech companies competing on a global scale.
This means considering all options under the UK immigration rules, whether points-based visas or other available schemes.
Tier 2 remains the primary option for tech workers to come to the UK, despite the costs and ongoing sponsorship licence compliance duties.
Should EU workers be required in the future required to apply under the points-based system, having a sponsor licence place will ensure you are already fully operational and able to avoid the inevitable rush in applications.
UK tech companies should not be deterred by potential changes to UK immigration rules in the wake of Brexit. The UK sector is buzzing with energy, drive and funding, and remains highly attractive to world-class talent, with or without borders. It’s a matter of employers ensuring they are fully informed of all of their immigration options and that they have the necessary measures in place to take advantage of the global talent pool.
Anne Morris is an immigration solicitor and Managing Director at DavidsonMorris, specialist business immigration advisers to tech companies on all aspects of UK immigration including sponsorship licences, compliance and civil penalties.