Brexit could drain Britain’s tech talent pool, but it needn't have to

Mehul Patel, Hired CEO
- Leadership - Jul 14, 2017

When 72 percent of the UK voting population descended upon polling stations in June last year, they were asked one simple thing about Britain’s EU membership: remain or leave? A straightforward question for a situation that is anything but.

For tech – a sector in which a third of workers are EU nationals, according to a London Assembly report – the complexities that stem from leaving the EU are now starting to show. Two years before the UK is due to make its exit and before negotiations on a parting deal have even begun, there has already been a significant impact on the country’s access to foreign tech talent.

According to Hired’s latest research, the total number of foreign tech workers interviewing with UK-based companies has halved since the Brexit vote. What’s more, the rate at which these individuals have accepted requests to interview from UK companies has fallen by 20 percent. By definition this means UK firms have a significantly smaller talent pool to recruit from than before the referendum.

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And it isn’t just a lack of overseas candidates causing that pool to shrink – it seems to work both ways. The number of UK tech firms interviewing foreign candidates has fallen from 25 percent at the beginning of 2016 to just 18 percent a year later – a nearly 30 percent drop since before Brexit.

The home-grown tech talent Britain already has is also in danger of being depleted. 70 percent of tech workers told us they’ve considered leaving the UK since the EU referendum. The vast majority of those say they would head to other European cities, while some suggested they might seek opportunities further afield in the US and Australia.

Of course, we don’t know what the final stance on immigration will be once the UK leaves the EU and no policies have changed yet. Clearly, then, the above statistics are mostly born of uncertainty. The question is: can an industry already struggling with a lack of available skills afford a two-year talent squeeze while negotiations take place?

The threat to innovation is real

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, one thing is clear: Britain can’t let it hold back the innovation and progress for which the country has become known. This isn’t just about protecting the UK tech scene’s own interests – a blow to the sector would damage everyone. A recent report found the tech industry is growing twice as fast as the wider UK economy, and that digital jobs are being created twice as fast as non-digital ones. Something that contributes so much to Britain’s success needs to be protected.

Yet the optimistic, entrepreneurial spirit that has driven our industry forward for so many years is in danger of being dampened. According to our research, 71 percent of UK tech workers are concerned about the future, with 72 percent saying it has already brought uncertainty to the sector. Even worse: 85 percent believe it could negatively impact innovation, while 41 percent are less likely to start their own business in the UK following the referendum result.

At this stage we can’t honestly say these numbers foreshadow reality, but we do know a reduction in the number of new tech firms being created could harm job-creation and put the brakes on Britain’s economy. After all, this sector contributes 10 percent of our total GDP and employs 1.64 million people. It is therefore critical that everyone – the private sector, government and academia – does whatever is necessary to protect and encourage tech innovation during the Brexit negotiations and beyond.

There’s a positive future ahead (if we take action now)

The stats above are concerning, but they needn’t spell doom for the UK tech sector. Rather they should act as a simple but powerful warning: complacency is not an option. 

Many of these findings are likely symptoms of the political and economic uncertainty the referendum result brought with it, with jobseekers and employers alike proceeding with caution until things become clearer. As a more definitive plan emerges, any negative effect from that uncertainty may begin to improve.

We saw this in the recent US election. As a Trump win began to look more likely, the stock markets took a hit, giving the impression that everything was doomed. Once he was elected, however, things began to look up again compared to that pre-election rut.

But we can’t rely on that. The stakes are simply too high. If Britain wants to retain its status as a global tech leader, everyone has to play a part in securing that future. Whether that’s bringing relatively low UK tech wages up to a more competitive level, encouraging greater enrolment in STEM subjects at university, or focusing more heavily on employee engagement and retention to keep hold of the talent the UK has, there is much work to be done.

Words are no longer enough – only action will make sure this brilliant industry keeps thriving.

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