Brexit - Tech companies warn of losing employees because the UK seems less welcoming

Profile picture for user Mark Samuels By Mark Samuels May 24, 2018
The UK needs to remain a welcoming place for digital talent after Brexit, according to experts. The government makes a commitment to more visas.

Brexit EU
The UK tech sector is in rude health but the battle for talent in a post-Brexit global economy presents big challenges for entrepreneurs and their growing businesses.

That was the conclusion of a range of experts who discussed the findings of the recently released Tech Nation Report 2018 at an event in Shoreditch, London. There was confidence that lessons learnt from both the previous Tech City UK and Tech North initiatives will help inspire cross-region growth as network specialist Tech Nation works to accelerate growth across the digital sector.

However, experts also noted the continued success of the UK’s tech scene both regionally and globally is far from a given. There was considerable concern that Brexit has created a significant challenge for UK entrepreneurs who are searching the globe for digital capability.

Making strong progress

Gerard Grech, chief executive at Tech Nation, said four things stand out from the report: the UK tech sector is growing almost three times as fast as the wider economy; London beats Silicon Valley when it comes to the proportion of overseas customers; London is the second most connected tech hub, after Silicon Valley; and the UK ranks third for total investment in tech companies, after the US and China. But the world continues to change quickly, said Grech:

The competition for tech talent is now global and fierce. Both France and Germany are doing all they can to attract the best and brightest to their communities. We welcome the competition; if they raise their game, we’ll raise ours. The business conditions are right in the UK – businesses have flourished, but we must work at it. We need to make sure that we’re offering tech visas to anyone who wants to come and start a business here. We’ll be doing all we can to make the technician visa scheme as successful as possible to attract the best and brightest talent.

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for DCMS, said he welcomed the progress that’s already been made. He referred to plans to help 40,000 UK entrepreneurs and 4,000 start-ups to scale. This support is being delivered to a dozen key cities around the UK. Yet there is no room for complacency, particularly given President Macron’s desire to make France “the start-up Nation”:

I know there are other places that are snapping at our heels and I admire President Macron for his chutzpah. But this is not a zero-sum game – a strong Paris makes for a strong London. Having said all that, I still want the UK to be in the lead – so we’ll work with you and Tech Nation to make sure that happens. The investments we’ve seen are deadly serious from us in government but, crucially, they can only be done in partnership with the private sector, too.

Hancock pointed to the “tremendous success” of AI-powered cyber security firm Darktrace, which has recently become the latest tech unicorn to be valued at more than $1bn. He said everyone in the digital sector should be inspired by that kind of success, especially as the UK looks to assert its global position post-Brexit. Hancock said the sourcing of capability is key to success:

As we leave the EU, we must seize on the opportunities around the world as part of becoming a truly global Britain – open, outward-looking, engaging with the world and gregarious. And to do that, we need the best tech talent from home and abroad. We must sure we train people at home but that we also attract the brightest and the best. We’ve doubled the number of exceptional talent visas, we’ve met with technology experts to make sure the processes are as efficient as possible and there’s more to do there.

Understanding key challenges

Other speakers at the Tech Nation event also recognised the importance of digital skills. However, there was concern about how the UK will source the best talent after Brexit. Cherry Freeman, co-founder and CEO at LoveCrafts, said recruitment is already a challenge for her start-up:

I don’t think that’s unique to us as a technology company but getting the best talent is at the heart of building a successful company. The length of time it takes to get great tech people is what can slow us down, and that’s why we’ve also opened an office in Kiev as well and we have a development team there. We don’t have the luxury of training up graduates. We must find people who are experienced because we’re not a big enough or mature enough business.

Sandy McKinnon, general partner at Pentech Ventures, said it must be remembered that “exceptional talent is exceptionally mobile”, so everyone involved in the tech scene must work hard to make the UK a welcoming place. It is here, he said, that Brexit presents challenges, particularly if candidates are expected to prove their value to work in the UK:

There’s a lot of money in other places around the world. If there’s a more welcoming place, people will go there. It’s alright saying we’re open for business and we’re giving people visas. But if people have to keep proving their worth, then that’s not welcoming.

Emily Orton, CMO at Darktrace, recognised recruiting talent is likely to remain tough post-Brexit, as did LoveCrafts’ Freeman, who said the decision to leave the European Union is likely to widen the digital skills gap:

We’ve scored a monumental own goal – two-thirds of our revenue comes from outside the UK and our team speaks 38 languages in one office. The ability to attract people from all over the world is going to recede. We’ve already lost two people after Brexit because they didn’t think this was a place they wanted to stay. So, clearly, it’s a huge problem.

This sentiment was echoed by Wendy Tan White, advisor at BGF Ventures and ex-CEO at Moonfruit, who said most of the tech sector did not vote for Brexit. She said we need a single market to compete with US and China, and that Britain needs to part of this market to maximise its success. Yet Tan White did issue a positive rallying cry:

Saying that, the tech industry is very adaptive and it will find other ways of working. Canada has already come across to the UK at a government and company level to look for different types of partnership. They know the UK is a looking for different ways of working. I met with the China Investment Corporation and they want to partner with bigger funding institutions – and they know we’re more open for business now and we need new solutions. We will find a way around this issue but there are still challenges ahead.