Positive changes to two of the UK’s tech related visas

The UK technology sector is booming, but business founders and executives across the industry have encountered a persistent obstacle. The shortage of skilled technical IT workers coupled with ongoing visa restrictions has made it difficult for tech businesses to hire the right talent to support their growth. In this update we look at new visa concessions for the tech sector introduced last month, which have been broadly welcomed by the industry as a step in the right direction.

Tier 2 General

Due to the closure of other personal visa routes such as the highly skilled migrant and post-graduate visa schemes, Tier 2 General is the visa route that UK employers must use to sponsor work permits for skilled non-EU hires. Although there are some exemptions, in many cases technology businesses are required to advertise their specialist roles to the resident workforce before offering to a non-EU applicant.

UK employers wishing to sponsor a Tier 2 visa for an applicant from overseas must also request a visa allocation against the UK’s immigration cap, unless the role is a “high earner” position offering at least £155,300 per year. In several months recently, demand for visas has exceeded the monthly limit. Roles considered to be in shortage or at PhD level get priority, but all other positions are scored against salary level. For those months where demand exceeded the monthly cap level, this scoring process pushed up the minimum annual salary needed to get approval to beyond the market rate visa minimum salary for the role. At its peak in June 2015, only roles with a minimum salary of £46,000 or higher got approval against the cap, which denied tech businesses and start-ups from getting visas for key positions and from hiring in graduate roles where starting salaries are typically lower.

To help combat this problem, as well as amending the way it assesses applications against the cap, UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI) has amended the Shortage Occupation List with effect from 19 November 2015. The SOL lists specific roles which are deemed to be in severe shortage and for which employers get a total exemption from the Resident Labour Market Test (advertising). SOL positions are also given extra weight in the assessment against the monthly immigration cap for overseas applicants, so are likely to be successful against the cap, regardless of proposed salary level, so having a role appear on the SOL is a valuable benefit.

Four IT related roles have just been added to the SOL- IT product managers, systems engineers, senior developers and cyber security specialists – but there is an extra hurdle for employers wanting to recruit for one of these roles. The UK sponsor must be a “qualifying company” and the job must require someone with at least 5 years’ relevant experience and demonstrable experience of having led a team. A “qualifying company” is a UK Tier 2 sponsor which must:

  • Have between 20 and 250 employees (or have fewer than 20 employees and supply a letter of endorsement from UKTI);
  • Not be more than 25% owned by a company which has one or more other establishments in the UK which employs more than 250 employees; and
  • Not have been established in the UK for the purpose of supplying services exclusively to a single company or company group in the UK.

Sponsors must first apply to UKVI to be considered as a “qualifying company”. New sponsors can do this by competing an additional one page form when applying for their Tier 2 sponsor licence. Existing Tier 2 sponsors can apply by making a Sponsor Change of Circumstances application. Please contact us if you wish to discuss your eligibility to use this scheme or to hire a non-EEA citizen in any of these roles. Qualifying companies can only sponsor a maximum of 10 migrants at any one time in these shortage occupation roles and the UK sponsor will also be required to retain extra evidence on file about the requirements of the role.

Tier 1 Exceptional Talent

This personal visa route is designed for recognised world leaders in one of the qualifying fields of science, humanities, engineering, medicine, digital technology or the arts. It is capped at 1,000 visas per year, with 200 available to the digital technology sector. Applicants in the tech industry can only get the visa if they have a prior endorsement from Tech City UK. Until now the number visa approvals has been incredibly low, because the route was limited to “world leaders” in the industry, putting it out of reach to all but a handful of applicants.

Recent lobbying by the tech sector has led to the evolution of the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent route into the Tech Nation visa scheme. To help businesses operating within the digital technology sector to attract and secure world class talent, four new qualifying criteria have been added:

  • Building UK scale-ups – to cover recruitment of roles needing key business or technical skills, including experts in Artificial Intelligence, Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning, experts in cyber security and various specialist programmer, developer and engineer positions. On the business side, examples include applicants with experience in taking a company to IPO, Chief Operating or Revenue Officers and executives with experience of scaling a business internationally.
  • Recruiting teams from overseas – this concession allows tech businesses to recruit up to 5 exceptional workers from overseas offices. This route will cover early stage start-ups, existing teams within an international company or independent teams wishing to relocate and work for a UK business, but each team member will be considered individually against the rules and will need to qualify in their own right.
  • Northern powerhouse – there is a fast track option for candidates planning to work or set up a company in one of Tech North’s seven cities: Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Sunderland.
  • Exceptional promise – the bar has been lowered slightly to include candidates who are earlier in their careers but have shown the potential to make significant contributions as future leaders in the tech world.

All applicants for the scheme must meet one of the mandatory criteria and two of the qualifying criteria. The mandatory criteria are:

  • A proven track record of innovation in the digital technology sector, and
  • Recognition for work outside the applicant’s immediate occupation that has contributed to the advancement of their sector.

Applicants can meet the qualifying criteria if they have, for example, exceptional ability through academic research, or if they have made a significant “technical, commercial or entrepreneurial contribution in the digital technology sector” as either a director, founder or employee of a digital technology company.

Although the rules have been relaxed slightly, there is no increase in the number of visas available in this route, so it will remain capped at 200 per year. We expect that the new concessions and the ability of whole teams to apply together will mean that there will be strong competition for endorsement from Tech City UK, making it still difficult to predict visa success in advance.

The future

Changes to both routes have been welcomed by the tech sector, but the biggest change to the work visa system may still be yet to come. As we reported in our update from last August, the Migration Advisory Committee will be publishing a report shortly to Government with recommendations on how to restrict the Tier 2 system. With net migration at a record high the Government believes that employers are overly-reliant on overseas workers. We expect that report to be published early in 2016 with changes to go live a few months later – probably in April. We will of course circulate an update on those recommendations as soon as the report is published.