How will Brexit affect the UK tech workforce?

With much of the country's talent coming from the EU, the split could cause skills problems


With Brexit looming, it's difficult to avoid thinking about all the ways in which life will be affected by it, not least because the details of the UK's departure from the EU and what will happen next are still to be decided. The discussions between the EU and UK could result in a complete rupture from the politico-economic bloc (hard Brexit), adapting UK law so it's equivalent to the EU law and retaining elements like freedom of movement and the customs union (soft Brexit) or, although unlikely, not leaving the EU at all.

This uncertainty creates difficulties for businesses wanting to make decisions and preparations for the eventual split. This is especially true for businesses within the IT industry; with the tech skills gap already very apparent within in UK, Brexit will undoubtedly affect the IT workforce, no matter what form it takes.

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One of the most obvious issues for business raised by Brexit is recruitment and staff retention as the majority of tech talent in the UK currently comes from EU citizens, not UK natives. Research by techUK conducted in 2016 revealed that 45% of digitally intensive job vacancies were filled by foreign-born workers, and a quarter of the employees in the software and computer industry are foreign-born, with the majority coming from the European Union. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) also reported that EU citizens make up approximately 180,000 jobs in the tech sector.

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Brexit, especially hard Brexit, could result in the loss of a number of those people, with current uncertainty over the future already paving the way for future problems. Research by law firm Baker and McKenzie in 2017 found that 56% of EU nationals living in the UK were likely to leave the country before the outcome of Brexit negotiations is known, with the technology, media and communication sector found to be one of the most at risk when it comes to loss of talent.

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Focusing on one area in particular, the Recruitment and Employment Federation found in December 2017 that 81% of UK recruitment agencies think demand for cyber security staff will increase "significantly" over the course of the next 12 months. Only 16% of respondents thought it the UK workforce would be able to meet demand, however, with 81% thinking it unlikely. Securing talent for this type of role and others could become more difficult if a hard Brexit scenario imposes a Visa scheme on workers from the EU, as that brings with it additional costs and hassle for the applicant and the would-be employer.

Gordon & Eden, a recruitment firm that specialises in technology executives, has also reported on this issue and found that numbers of job applicants from EU citizens have fallen by 40% because people are concerned about the economy, venture capital investment, and visas.

Giles Derrington, head of policy exiting the European Union at techUK, told IT Pro, "One of the things we have seen is businesses, not necessarily not getting applications from the EU anymore, but finding people who having successfully gotten jobs from the EU, turning it down, or asking for more money to basically offset the falling exchange rate."

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Britain leaving the EU doesn't only affect those wanting immediate jobs in the tech sector, though. It seems Brexit could also cause a loss of students from the EU who wish to study STEM at UK universities, furthering the problem.

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An investigation carried out in September 2017 by the Administrative Data Research Network found that of the 500,000 foreign students studying in the UK, roughly 125,000 are EU nationals. These students are likely to be studying STEM subjects, the research found, with approximately two-thirds of postgraduates from the EU undertaking studies in this sector.

Many of the students who come to study in the UK, also tend to perform better than their native counterparts with those who go into employment (as opposed to further study) securing better jobs than their peers. What's more, those jobs are often here, in the UK, with over 50% remaining in the country six months after graduation.

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However, Brexit could reduce the number of these students coming into the country the Administrative Data Research Network said, as it's unlikely the process for EU citizens coming to study here will be as easy as it is currently. A change in the perceived desirability of the UK as a place to study and work and reduced funding for research, leading to fewer paid postgraduate places, were also cited as potential hurdles.

This, the researchers said, shows that universities and businesses could lose some of "the most highly skilled graduates, presenting a serious blow to the UK economy and workforce".

"The big issue, for universities as well as IT generally, will be recruiting and retaining good staff," Ross Anderson, security engineering professor at Cambridge, tells IT Pro.

"I have one EU postdoc leaving next week and another who's told me he doesn't want to renew his contract when it finishes at the end of June. In other cases, we've had non-EU lab staff having problems getting visas for Partners."

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"Computing will be particularly badly hit as we don't train anything like enough young British people to program. We've been doing what we can for years; however many if not most schools still don't have proper computer science teachers," he added.

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He went on to say that these issues keep the UK reliant on other countries for programmers, and if there are visa hassles that prevent or dissuade them from working in the UK, "the benefit to UK tech firms will be lost, and the net effect will be the opposite of 'taking back control'."

Issues like this throw into stark relief the fact the UK needs to improve the levels of STEM training it offers its own citizens, starting at the primary education level. Implementing initiatives such as this takes time, however, and with the Article 50 cut-off date now only a year away, there isn't sufficient time to build up this native workforce by Brexit Day

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In the meantime, therefore, the UK needs to make plans for how immigration policies and visas will function in a post-Brexit world, as well as taking steps towards increasing funds for tech start-ups to help close the gap between UK and foreign firms. All of these actions could help keep IT talent within UK borders.

Derrington believes the government is gaining a better understanding of these problems as well as the importance of immigration to the UK's economy, especially in the tech sector. This is seen, for example, with the recent developments such the government's commitment to double visas for talent that was announced in November last year. However, he stresses the importance for the government to secure both a decent transitional deal and a highly flexible mobile system both leading up to and after the UK officially leaves. Both of these kinds of deals could help keep tech talent interested and able to remain in the UK, as well as making it easier for the tech sector as a whole.

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"We're confident that there's a deal to be done with this stuff there is a mutual benefit of having a decent immigration system but it all very much depends on where we end up," Derrington says.

Overall, it's clear that Brexit will pose challenges for the workforce within the tech industry, especially while government and businesses alike are trying to figure out what exactly the situation will entail; however, it's very possible that in the long run, the UK will adjust and continue to be a powerful force in the tech sector.

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