Tech Talent – start-ups, scale-ups and new ventures


8 mins

Posted on 05 Jun 2018

Tech Talent – start-ups, scale-ups and new ventures

Whether you’re a start-up tapping into new markets, an established business scaling up, or a tech entrepreneur launching a new idea into the UK, you’ll all have the same thing in common – the need for top tech savvy talent. For many businesses these people are the key to taking advantage of the opportunities created by the latest advances in AI, mobile apps, software engineering and analytics and often provide both the ideas and the ways to put them into practice. 

AI and robots …………. there’ll always be a need for talent

Do businesses really need people? Well, with recent developments in artificial intelligence and robots you may well think that the answer is "no" and it’s only a matter of time before we all become redundant. Why, you just have to take a trip to Amazon’s Seattle HQ’s basement convenience store to see a human contact-free business in practice. After stepping inside, customers simply pick what they need off the shelves, scan the items with their phones and the transaction is processed and completed with money leaving their account before they leave the store. Shelves are filled by machines automatically during quiet parts of the day and the robots also clean the store and manage reordering, optimising inventory and maximising profits. All of the administration and bookkeeping is also done by machines making it pretty much a person-free operation. There are people involved though – behind the scenes in designing and developing software, building more advanced robots and planning further store openings etc. Without these people, the people-free convenience store would not have happened. Technology is important, but it’s people that have made it happen. 

Talent – no borders required

Whilst Britain has an ever growing pool of highly skilled individuals, it is finite and looking more widely will help to ensure that the very best people are tapped into.  This can make a major difference to a business’s success, and countries including Ukraine, Poland and India are currently producing some of the most innovative and highly skilled workers. To hire from any of these (Poland being the exception, until the Brexit timetable has been finalised), requires a visa and getting tech talent into the UK is increasingly challenging. In the last quarter, over 1,600 IT workers and engineers were denied UK visas and over half of all applications failed due to Home Office monthly limits being reached. That’s why it’s important to know the best route and which of the variety of UK working visas, work permits and passports are needed, along with and the easiest and most certain way of obtaining them.

The UK – visas and sponsorship

Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa and Sponsorship under the Digital Shortage Occupational category  

The main immigration routes for tech talent are Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visas and sponsoring an individual under the Digital Shortage Occupational category (a Sponsor Licence is needed for this).

There are other options (Sole Representative and Entrepreneur Visas), which respectively enable the setting up of a UK based entity of an overseas parent organisation, or a person to invest into their own company.  However these are less tech specific.

The Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) category is designed for non-EEA nationals who are internationally recognised as world leaders in their field (Exceptional Talent) or recognised as having the potential to become future leaders (Exceptional Promise). 

To apply for a technology Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa, an endorsement from Tech Nation is needed. Tech Nation was set up by the government initially to support the East London tech cluster, Silicon Roundabout. It now covers all of the UK and endorses applications for the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa in digital technology. 

Tech Nation looks for individuals and/or groups (of up to five people with a successful track record of collaboration) with particular skills areas including software development and engineering and cybersecurity, as well as experience of tech IPOs, investing in digital businesses and growing them internationally. The application process includes: 

  • A letter explaining their contribution to the Tech Sector in the UK
  • Two letters from well-known experts who are familiar with an individual’s work
  • Evidence of any involvement with tech businesses over the last 5 years
  • 10 pieces of evidence showing that qualifying criteria are met for either exceptional talent or exceptional promise relating to:
    • Innovation in tech
    • Recognition outside your immediate occupation
    • Technical or commercial contributions
    • Continuous learning of new digital skills
    • Academic contributions.

Examples of these include GitHub profiles and talking at conferences, as well as starting and/ or contributing to open source projects that have received peer recognition.

As a Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa holder, a person can decide how long they wish to stay in the UK, up to a maximum of five years. After spending five years in the UK with a Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa they may be eligible to settle in the UK. There is a limit on how many applications can be endorsed each year which currently stands at 2,000 (split into two phases), with Tech City having approximately 200 to award.  

As a Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa holder a person has the full right to work - for an employer, as a director of their own company or self-employed. A partner and children under the age of 18 may accompany or join later as dependents.  

This therefore makes the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) and Exceptional Promise category a useful option to those in the tech industry who can demonstrate world class talent, or talent which will mature.  You would not be limited by working for a particular employer and would be free to build those robots!

Sponsorship under the Tier 2 General Digital Shortage Occupation List

Another option (but slightly more limited) is sponsorship under the Tier 2 (General) Route. This is designed for non-EEA nationals looking to come to the UK and be sponsored by a UK based company.  For this a person must perform a role that is suitably skilled and receive at least the minimum salary as stipulated by the government’s list of codes (or at least £30,000, whichever is the higher, unless an exemption applies).

What are the main eligibility requirements?

First of all, the UK based company needs to hold a Tier 2 (General) Sponsor Licence. This requires at least one UK based employee or office holder to be in place with settled status to perform the ‘Authorising Officer’ and/or 'Level 1' user function, unless an exemption applies such as having an 'Authorising Officer" who holds Tier 1 Exceptional talent status. The company needs to have robust HR systems in place and a range of documents needs to be submitted and approved by the Home Office. 

If the Sponsor does not hold a ‘digitech limb’, then it will need to add this using the online Sponsor Management System and also meet a range of conditions:

  • Be a small or medium sized enterprise (SME) – this means that they must have between 20 and 250 employees. There are some exceptions to this e.g. having a letter from the Department for International Trade (DIT) if you have fewer than 20 employees.
  • Be independent in the UK – this means that they must not be more than 25% owned by a company which has one or more other establishments in the UK, where one of those establishments employs more than 250 employees. They may, however, be owned (partly or wholly) by an overseas company with no other branch, subsidiary or other representative in the UK.
  • Not have been established in the UK for the purpose of supplying services exclusively to another company in the UK.

If the Sponsor holds a ‘digitech limb’, then it may be able to sponsor an individual under the Tier 2 General Digital Shortage Occupation List. 

The benefit of this route is that roles falling within this Shortage Occupation List do not need to be advertised to the local job market for 28 days. An application from outside the UK will still need to be made, and the Certificate of Sponsorship still falls within the ‘Restricted’ process. A further advantage is that roles on this List are awarded substantially more points so the likelihood of the request being successful in the monthly panel is greater. This is important because over the past few months, the monthly panel has been oversubscribed and requests with salaries at the lower end have been increasingly unsuccessful. 

Eligible people will need to be data scientists and satisfy the strict requirements in order to fall within the Shortage Occupation List. This route involves applying for a three or five year visa and permits an application for settlement, subject to satisfying set criteria. The downside of this route is the restriction of working for the Sponsor and not being able to set up your own business. To change employers from within the UK, you would need to move to another Tier 2 (General) Sponsor and they may be required to advertise the new role if they do not hold a ‘digitech’ limb.

Looking ahead …..

Technology has altered the way businesses operate, shrunk the world and opened up opportunities that a short while ago would have been pipe dreams and thought impossible – people-free businesses, who would indeed have imagined it?

Brexit has added to these uncertainties and will undoubtedly create further opportunities that tech businesses in the UK and in particular London, with its access to capital and investors, will take advantage of.

Visiting London’s Silicon Roundabout where 50,000 digital tech employees are based at over 2,000 startups, I was struck by the number of co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators. There is certainly an air of excitement and determination. Now more than ever is the time for digital talent to come to the UK to be at the forefront of this.  

The articles published on this website, current at the date of publication, are for reference purposes only. They do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice about your own circumstances should always be sought separately before taking any action.