It will come as no surprise to regular readers of V3 that IT and digital skills are in high demand, prompting calls for more industry involvement with education and warnings about the impact of leaving the technology skills gap unfilled.
The unveiling of a new Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa scheme, known as the Tech Nation Visa, set up by Tech City UK, aims to bring in digital skills from beyond the European Union's borders to meet the demand for skills in the short term, while the introduction of coding in schools and various other digital skills initiatives will close the gap in the long term.
Gerard Grech, chief executive of Tech City UK, told V3 that the demand for skills has grown dramatically over the past few years owing to the rise of digital businesses, particularly those in east London's Silicon Roundabout and Tech City, which are seeking the skills they need to grow from startups into larger companies.
"There's been such a surge in the growth of businesses over the last five years; there are lots of startups, now there are lots of fast-growing businesses. Even in the Roundabout, there were 200 software businesses six, seven years ago, now there are over 2,500. That puts good pressure on plugging the skills gap," he said.
Grech citied TransferWise as one example of a startup that comprised just two people in 2011 and now employs hundreds.
"There are many companies like that and clearly that's put a lot of pressure on finding the talent they need," he added.
Grech explained that a lot of the demand for skills comes from companies wanting teams of skilled and experienced people who have taken firms looking to scale up into initial public offering stages on the world's stock markets.
"It is increasingly common to see businesses acquire small teams of experts to help them grow with their product or development," he said.
Britain needs skilled migrants
Grech was keen to point out that the Tech Nation Visa scheme was created in direct response to digital businesses crying out for more skills.
Alastair Paterson, chief executive of cyber security startup Digital Shadows, told V3 that this is certainly the case with his company.
"Education in the UK is generally of a high standard, and there's a good talent pool. But we always need more, particularly in technology," he said.
"There are certain positions, such as data scientists and cyber security professionals, where there are just a handful in the world with the deep level of cyber security experience we need. As such it's vital we are able to augment UK expertise from the best in the world."
Paterson has welcomed the Tech Nation Visa scheme as a way to solve challenges in sourcing digital skills.
"Ask most high-growth technology businesses where they have the biggest challenge and most of them will say recruitment. Digital Shadows is no different. We are lucky in that the tech sector right now is booming, but so is the competition for the best talent," he said.
"We've had challenges hiring some people from outside the EU and that's certainly something we'd like to see resolved with a more relaxed visa regime for talented individuals."
However, Paterson expressed concerns about a cap on the number of visas issued through the Tier 1 scheme.
"We welcome any initiative that helps us recruit from outside the EU for the best talent in the world, especially in data science and cyber security, but a cap of 200 severely limits the effectiveness of this measure," he said.
"Such individuals will help grow the technology sector in the UK and be a net ‘win' for the country as a whole, and we hope the cap is raised in the future."
TechUK, an organisation that represents over 850 technology companies in the UK, and has previously championed 'smart migration' as a way to fill the skills gap, welcomed the Tech Nation Visa.
"It's good news that the government and Tech City UK have listened to the tech community, and the changes to the Tier 1 exceptional talent scheme are a positive step. Tech companies need a smart migration policy which helps scaling companies access the talent they need to grow," said Charlotte Holloway, head of policy at TechUK.
However, while TechUK is pleased with the changes to the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa scheme, Holloway noted that the government's proposals to reform the Tier 2 visa scheme for skilled workers needs careful consideration if the UK's technology industry is to have access to the skills it needs.
"The tech community will be pleased at this development, but wider questions remain on the government's current proposals to reform the Tier 2 visa scheme for skilled workers on which many tech companies depend," she said.
A matter of time
The skills gap is a concern, but it is worth noting that, as the technology industry grows in the UK, fuelled in particular by digital startups, technology skills are likely to grow organically as the ecosystem leads to the transfer of skills and talent.
Grech was positive that the supply of skills will grow to match the demand in the long term as new expertise develops alongside the growth of digital companies.
"We're definitely at a point where there are many more people who are working in digital technology than ever before," he said. "It's a question of time before you have a critical mass of expertise in all areas."
Grech highlighted that the pool of skills in the UK, particularly in London, is being enhanced by large technology companies, such as Facebook, establishing European or international headquarters in the city. The presence of these companies will bring more skills into the nation organically. "[It] enriches the ecosystem in terms of people with the right employment skills," he said.
The Tech Nation Visa appears to be a positive move by Tech City UK and the government, and should go some way to plugging the skills gap.
However, the technology industry and government organisations will not rest on their laurels when it comes to building digital skills in the UK, so it is likely that more schemes and centres focused on finding and developing technology skills are on the horizon.
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