UK tech must take a page out of the Canadian immigration playbook


Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates and ex-VP of Skype, explains how Canada is making bold steps to attract foreign tech talent, and the UK should be doing the same.

Canada’s government and business leaders have responded to President Trump’s disruptive immigration policies with a private-sector led optimism. From welcoming those rejected under the President’s controversial Travel Ban to piloting a world-leading startup visa, the lesser known tech hubs north of Silicon Valley have made a strong case to attract global talent. It is important that post-Brexit Britain does the same, if we are to compete in the challenge for the world’s best and brightest tech professionals.

Trump’s partially implemented travel ban, coupled with ominous rhetoric on the H-1B visas for skilled workers, has put the US in a difficult position and provided tech hubs from around the globe with a unique opportunity. The UK should learn from international best practice to craft a uniquely British immigration system that attracts the world’s best and brightest tech talent and competes with the likes of Silicon Valley and Israel on a global scale.

Silicon Valley leaders have already announced plans to move foreign-born workers to Canada, and Toronto and Vancouver are steadily growing as tech hubs within this shifting immigration landscape.

Canada’s flourishing tech scene is becoming a significant opportunity for global tech talent with specialisms in fast-growing sectors such as biotech and artificial intelligence. By attracting top talent that forsakes the US, the country can move beyond being a regional hub for the marketing and sales department of Silicon Valley giants like AirBnB and Facebook, and become a hub of entrepreneurship and product development in its own right.

Attracting tech talent

Canadian business and tech leaders signed an open letter calling on the country’s federal government to offer visas to those displaced by the US Muslim ban, a policy that was condemned by Silicon Valley, but to no avail.

America’s friendly neighbour is also planning on luring in tech talent with a Startup Visa Programme, allowing entrepreneurs to gain permanent residency in Canada on the back of a contribution from a Canadian investor. They also fast-track visas for highly skilled talent, processing applications in as little as two weeks.

Those of us in the tech sector have long known the value of culture, and now we are seeing it play out at a national level. Canada’s rhetoric and regulation on immigration has projected a positive image of a country that is tolerant, meritocratic and inclusive, values that resonate with tech professionals from around the world. The UK’s tech sector should aim to project these same values or we could be left behind – research from Hired shows the UK is trailing Germany when it comes to relocating US tech workers, despite our shared culture and languages.

One way to make international recruitment more tech-friendly is to remove the red tape for startups looking to hire. Tech London Advocates has campaigned for the government to introduce Third Party Sponsorship (TPS) of Tier 2 visas, which enables larger and more established organisations, for example accelerators and venture capital firms, to endorse visas. This allows startups access to talent without burying them in red tape, while still ensuring professionals on visas have financial backing and a guaranteed job.

Another country to learn from is Hong Kong, which has an immigration strategy geared towards attracting foreign professionals and investors. This includes a special entrepreneur visa scheme for foreign entrepreneurs and innovators, aimed at attracting those who will relocate or build their businesses in the country. The regulation is targeted and effective, making it far more useful than the current UK Entrepreneur Visa, which needs to be made fit for purpose.

Reliance on tech

Research from Tech City UK, shows our tech sector creates jobs at three times the rate of the rest of the economy, with demand outstripping supply by a considerable amount. Tech is a global and borderless industry, so we are at risk of slowing this growth or even losing companies to more welcoming markets if we do not improve access to international talent in highly-skilled sectors such as FinTech, CreativeTech, artificial intelligence and Internet of Things. Bodies such as the Migration Advisory Committee play an important role in preventing serious economic damage to the country, but it is incumbent on all of our entrepreneurs to have a voice and show the need for sensible policy in this area.

We are a country increasingly reliant on the digital economy, meaning that our ability to sustain healthy economic growth and a prosperous future is directly linked to our capacity to bring in the leading tech professionals from around world. UK tech has an excellent reputation internationally, but we cannot take this for granted and view immigration as a political football with negligible effects. Access to talent is at the backbone of our economy’s success.

London, along with the whole of the UK, is making its name as a preeminent global tech hub. We must not only look to other countries for policy propositions, but must be ambitious and progressive enough to lead the way in attracting top talent. Canada is proving already that this approach can yield significant benefits.