The north? Thar be tech unicorns. At least, thar will be if today’s relaxation of visa rules for tech workers has its desired effect. Tech City UK, the quango tasked with growing Britain’s digital business scene, is making it easier for firms to recruit the cream of the world’s technological crop from next month.
Since early 2014, Tech City has had the power to endorse up to 200 workers a year for Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visas, but has faced criticism that the system was still too complicated for smaller businesses in particular to navigate. Clearly, today’s announcement is supposed to change that, and in so doing help budding British tech firms compete with rivals in the US and, increasingly, China.
Businesses hoping to recruit the top international talent will soon have four new ways of meeting the Tier 1 criteria. Priority will be given to workers with experience scaling companies (whether at IPO or before) and younger people with ‘exceptional promise’. Teams of up to five will be able to apply, while anyone recruiting in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Sunderland or Hull will get their applications fast-tracked. ‘Powering the Northern Powerhouse’ is how Tech City refers to it.
Back to earth
That all sounds super, doesn’t it? Even the most hardened of UKIP supporters would struggle to object to a few hundred foreign geniuses rocking up in Sunderland and creating the next Facebook there (so long as it paid its taxes, of course).
But it raises an awkward question. Why, if the state can make an unnecessarily difficult, restrictive and bureaucratic process easier for one sector, can it not just do the same for other sectors? Don't ad agencies, biotech companies or engineering firms need access to the world’s best too?
The same could be said for the priority given to the north. It’s all very well the government wanting to make it easier to recruit there, but that doesn’t seem a good reason to keep it difficult to recruit everywhere else.
There’s also no indication that streamlining the visa application process for tech workers will actually make the government’s dream of having a home-grown digital beast to rival Google or Apple come true. According to Techworld, only 10 people applied for Tier 1 visas between April 2014 and April this year (seven were successful). That would imply the problem has more to do with marketing or indeed (heaven forbid) Britain’s fundamental attractiveness for such workers than the formal process of getting jobs here.
Relaxing the visa restrictions for top end workers could help matters in the rapidly growing tech scene (particularly in the north), but it’s unlikely to transform them. The same may not be true for the rest of the economy.