Brexit series: Part I. Staffing the UK’s tech sector

As predicted, the reality of the UK’s departure from the EU is posing a raft of legal, logistical, technological, ethical and bureaucratic headaches for not just the Whitehall legislature.

The UK’s tech industry has largely out-performed the broader economy over the last decade, weathering the global crash of 2008 better than most sectors and then rebounding strongly since. The UK is one of the most digital nations in the world, with the tech industry contributing over £91bn to the economy in 2015. As it stands, 7.5 per cent of the UK workforce is employed in digital industries and 12.4 per cent of our GDP is attributed to technology and digital business –the highest of any G20 country.

Even in the aftermath of last Summer’s Brexit vote, the UK’s tech space seems to have remained buoyant. Apple has since committed to its £9bn London HQ project; Google announced plans to hire 3,000 more people across the UK; Facebook unveiled plans to create 500 new UK jobs in 2017; Snapchat bought its international head office to London; Deliveroo announced more developer and tech jobs for the Capital; and Amazon is expanding its workforce and office space in the UK too.

Despite the seemingly positive outlook however, there are “significant challenges” ahead and many of the UK’s tech bosses have already expressed worry about access to labour markets and the movement for skilled workers.

Research commissioned by techUK at the beginning of the year revealed that British employers in digitally intensive industries are particularly reliant on overseas talent, with 45% of recent vacancies filled by foreign-born workers. In software and computer services, nearly a quarter of UK workers were born overseas, and the share from European Union countries has grown fastest due to more restrictive immigration rules for foreigners from elsewhere.

While politicians are now beginning to discuss the realistic options open to them once the UK has left the Single Market, it simply serves to highlight a pervasive and long-standing concern about how the UK staffs its technology sector moving forward. Agreements with the EU will of course, in time be required, but could the ultimate solution to future-proofing the UK’s currently buoyant tech and digital economy already be within our grasp?

STEM subjects are the foundation to the UK’s technology and digital economy and exam results for the number of students taking STEM A-levels, have seen an increase of more than 38,000 since 2010. Similarly, university computer sciences applications are above 100,000, representing the greatest percentage increase among the other top ten most studied subjects.

These figures are good news for the wider economy. As more students gain strong A-level and post-graduate results in STEM subjects, there is a greater opportunity to bring scientific, statistical and data analytics skills into businesses in the future.

But it’s not just the typical academic paths that are seeing growth in terms of tech take up — so too is the apprenticeship route. With escalating costs of higher education and a general wider acceptance that traditional means of academia are not always the best fit, the groundswell around technology in particular, is building here too.

Brexit does not mean the UK is going to take an isolationist, insular approach to EU relations, global trade or technology innovation in the future, and our sceptred isle is clearly still a destination of interest for more than simply tourists looking to catch a glimpse of Buckingham Palace or Big Ben.

As the winds of political change continue to bump and buffet the UK over the next two years, it does mean that, the UK is going to have to take a long and hard look at itself and make significant efforts to be more self-sufficient. And where better to start, than by nurturing, growing and staffing the UK’s growing technology and digital sectors with more top quality home-grown talent.

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