Jim Armitage: Toast visa boost for techies... but more is needed

Business, Comment
Jim Armitage:

You could hear the champagne corks popping over Watford.

As that noble town’s Grove hotel hosts the Founders Forum today, known to the great and good as “Davos for Tech”, Theresa May is finally relenting on her obsession with keeping bright foreign IT workers out of the country.

No industry has been held back as much as technology by the Prime Minister’s myopic restrictions on Tier 2 skilled worker visas for people outside the EU.

London’s tech scene is the hottest in the world outside San Francisco. Yet it suffers a woeful lack of staff to cope with its growth.

The employment websites say it all: currently in the Greater London area there are ads for more than 25,000 tech vacancies.

Without enough Brits to fill these roles, there have been few times in history when we have so needed skilled foreign workers.

Worries about Brexit have kept many European techies away. Berlin, Amsterdam and even Paris are seen as better options.

That means we have to look further afield for candidates to get the job done.

Tomorrow, the Home Office will announce plans to take NHS workers out of the 20,700 allocation of Tier 2 visas, freeing up thousands for the tech world’s skilled employees.

Just what the doctor ordered.

But it’s not just the programmers, data analysts and developers we need.

If we really want to thrive as a tech nation, we should be bending backwards to encourage the brightest company founders here too: precisely the kind of superbrain entrepreneurs who are in attendance at the Founders Forum today.

And they are a veritable rainbow of nations: Chinese, Indians, Turks, Russians, Japanese, Americans, Canadians.

All have created big, global businesses offering high-paid jobs and paying big taxes.

Why wouldn’t we want them to set up shop here?

The relaxation of the Tier 2 regime follows yesterday’s launch of start-up visas for just this breed of tycoon. Under these plans, UK tech investors such as incubators, venture capital funds and accelerators will be able to sponsor foreign entrepreneurs’ visa applications, making it quicker and easier for the Home Office to process them.

More great news.

Having seen the Government finally heeding businesses’ calls, it would seem churlish to chide it for not doing enough. But given the expansion of London’s tech economy and the lack of EU folks coming here, it’s certain that the new visas now being freed up will soon all be taken.

The next step should be to increase the Tier 2 limit until we are at a level that truly makes supply meet demand, at least for the decade or so it will take for us to grow our own tech talent.

Then lurks the bigger issue: how we treat EU workers post-Brexit.

But given the turmoil in the Cabinet, answers to that question seem a long way away.