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The impact of Brexit on UK tech talent

As talk heats up across the nation about Britain’s future in the EU there is one issue that perhaps isn’t getting the airtime it deserves: access to talent. Put simply, Brexit would impact the movement of talent into and out of the UK. For the technology sector in the country, this is potentially serious.

Widening skills gaps

In an industry that is already facing skills shortages, access to talent across the EU has been hugely beneficial. There were reports from SJD Accountancy last year, for example, of a 13 per cent increase in EU tech talent seeking work in the UK. Exactly what will happen to those individuals who have already made a move to the UK should Brexit happen isn’t clear and is a key concern for all involved in the industry. What is certain, however, is that the skills gap will only continue to grow and access to experts across the EU will be vital in maintaining the sector’s development and growth.

It’s important to add that there are already limitations on importing talent from outside the EU into the country due to a mismatch between the government’s views on the skills needed in the sector and the reality of the situation. Should Britain choose to leave the EU, the prime way for international talent to seek work in the UK would be through a tier 2 job visa, as happens with non-EU nationals now. However, we know that these don’t work as well as they perhaps could as the often lengthy process can put applicants off from applying initially. As it stands, the criteria for tier 2 job visas are sporadically updated, meaning they often don’t factor in the skills required by firms at the time. Given that updates to the criteria are slow to happen, an exit from the EU will only lengthen time to hire, subsequently reducing the attractiveness to work in the UK.

A global brain drain

Another potential impact of Brexit is a loss of vital knowledge that is the driving force behind the growth of the industry. Technology is in its very nature mobile and if firms can’t source the required skills in the UK, they will outsource the work to other countries. The impact is simple: the knowledge development happens elsewhere. If, for example, a firm outsources its coding to India or China, the information and knowledge developed will remain with Indian or Chinese talent. With fewer experts bringing their knowledge into the UK, tech skills and experience will deplete within the country and the headway we have made in the technology race will stall. In turn, as other countries begin to build stronger tech hubs with greater career development opportunities, the UK risks losing some of its already limited talent.

Addressing Brexit

With all this in mind, what would need to be done to address skills shortages in the event of Brexit? In the first instance, businesses would need to focus more energy into the development of internal talent. Existing knowledge gained from international experts needs to be captured and divulged across the business so as not to be lost. Training programmes need to be reviewed to ensure the right people are garnering the skills needed. And an environment that entices these individuals to stay needs to be developed. We simply cannot afford to lose individuals to other countries due to the perception that there are better opportunities elsewhere.

Secondly, the need to engage with individuals at a younger age when career choices have yet to be made will be more vital than ever if the campaign to leave the EU succeeds. Without a pipeline of talented individuals entering the world of tech, progression and subsequently profitability will be severely inhibited.

I would argue that both of these options should be initiated sooner, rather than later. Simply waiting for a decision on Brexit to be made before taking action could leave many tech firms vulnerable.

Predicting the outcome of June’s referendum is impossible, but what I can say with certainty is that should Brexit happen, the tech sector and the UK as a whole will face a considerable amount of uncertainty that could cost us all some of the best talent. As a result, business growth and profitability would be under threat – a real concern for all in the industry.

Tim Jacob is Operations Director at ReThink Recruitment and is an REC Tech Sector board member

Image Credit: Flickr/Sébastien Bertrand