The technology sector in Scotland is thriving, but could its growth be undermined by issues around bringing new talent on board – particularly from overseas? Solicitor John Kiely, of specialist immigration firm Fragomen, explores how prospective new visa routes may solve the sector’s people problem…

It’s not hard to find evidence of the extent of the tech boom in Scotland. Start-ups and scale-ups north of the border collectively employ 135,000 – the third-highest tally in the UK after the south-east and London, according to a recent report.

Tech roles in Glasgow and Edinburgh alone have risen by more than a quarter in the past two years, and the latter has just been named among the UK’s leading tech cities in the Levelling Up Power Tech League 2021.

That study, however, also highlights the high levels of IT-related vacancies – in Edinburgh and Glasgow they make up 30% and 28% respectively of all job vacancies – and that provides the backdrop to a wider issue: getting the right people on board to support growth ambitions.

It’s acknowledged there are acute shortages of skilled workers in this sector, and many firms are looking beyond our shores for new people, alongside a strategy of training and upskilling local talent.

If a candidate isn’t British, Irish or settled in the UK, they’ll almost certainly need a visa to work here, and Brexit complicated the issue for European nationals. For example, anyone who was not eligible for pre-settled or settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme by the June 30, 2021, deadline, now needs a visa to work in the UK – in exactly the same way as say an Indian, Nigerian or American national.

There are a variety of current UK visa options – the Skilled Worker and Intra Company Transfer (ICT) visas are the UK’s work permits, while Global Talent is a flexible visa route for individuals who show they have exceptional specialist talent or promise – this is a fantastic visa if you’re eligible, but not everyone is considered a leading talent in their chosen field.

There are other categories such as Innovator and Start-up, but tech entrepreneurs often find the process complicated, demanding and costly.

However, there are interesting developments in the visa world and several new routes have been announced, launching now and in summer 2022. There’s enough there to indicate a willingness to help solve overseas recruitment issues for the technology sector – and in particular for high-growth companies on the up.

In summary, they are:

Global Business Mobility visa: This category opened on April 11, 2022, and enables an overseas business to temporarily send employees to the UK for a specific corporate purpose that could not be performed by a resident worker. The route has five pathways for overseas firms to establish a UK presence or transfer staff to the UK. The applicant requires sponsorship under this route – so the UK entity will need to have a sponsor licence in place. The new route will consolidate aspects of the ICT, ICT Graduate Trainee and the recently closed Representative of an Overseas Business categories. It is designed for applicants who are coming to the UK on temporary assignments so does not directly lead to settlement.

High Potential Individual visa: This route will open on May 30, 2022, and is designed to allow high potential individuals to come to the UK without needing a job offer. Aimed at attracting top international talent to the UK, the route will be open to those who have ‘graduated from a top global university’ within the past five years. The university must have been ranked on the top 50 of at least two of three reputable ranking systems. It’s important to note that those graduating from a UK university cannot benefit from this new category – although they should be eligible for a two-year visa Graduate visa.

The route should also be appealing to employers because they will not have to cover costs of sponsorship under the Skilled Worker category. Unfortunately, the route does not lead to settlement in the UK and does not appear to be extendable.

Scale-up visa: A fast-track visa route to be launched on August 22, 2022, for those with a ‘high skill’ job offer from an eligible UK employer and a salary of at least £33,000. Employers will need to demonstrate they are a ‘scale-up’ by showing an annual average revenue or employment growth rate over a three-year period greater than 20%, and a minimum of ten employees at the start of the three-year period. Interestingly the route only requires sponsorship from the company for the first six months and the applicant can then apply for an unsponsored extension. The route will lead to settlement after five years. This visa will appeal to eligible employees, but perhaps less so to employers – given that they are required to meet markers to register as a sponsor and then after just six months the employee is able to work for any UK employer without sponsorship.

These visas potentially present new opportunities but they also add fresh dimensions to an already complex visa system, so it’s always best to seek specialist guidance to identify – and pursue – the best routes for your circumstances.

The bottom line to all of this is that we have a burgeoning technology sector and all the wider economic benefits that come with it. It’s a job well done if we can make it easier for firms to source the talent that underpins their growth.

John Kiely is a Senior Associate and Solicitor with Fragomen, a leading firm dedicated exclusively to immigration services worldwide. The firm has almost 5,000 immigration professionals and support staff in more than 50 offices across the Americas, EMEA and Asia Pacific. Fragomen offers immigration support in more than 170 countries.