Demystifying migration: How skilled migrants may be the short term solution to the UK’s data skills needs

Nesta and Universities UK recently launched reports on data analytics skills in the UK, and a joint policy briefing setting out changes in UK education and skills policy to improve the supply of analytical talent. We showed the benefits of embedding data analytics in businesses, and the ways that companies are doing this through highly skilled workers.

We found that data is becoming more and more important for businesses operating in the midst of the big data revolution. But realising the opportunities of this data glut will require talent with new skills. Businesses say they need workers with a mix of analysis, coding, domain knowledge and communication and soft skills, but those people seem hard to find – so much so that some even refer to them as ‘unicorns’.

A number of organisations are leading interventions in schools, universities and the labour market (through CPD and other training schemes) to develop skills the UK needs to survive in the big data era. But there will be a natural lag whilst this data talent filters into the workplace - to plug these gaps in the meantime, some have argued that skilled migrant workers will be needed.

There are a number of migration policy routes that employers can use to hire skilled data talent and others for exceptionally talented or entrepreneurial migrants. However, there are problems with the way that the some routes currently work. This blog will introduce some of these routes, and look at the ways in which companies can unlock overseas data talent.

As an introduction to the world of migration policy, we will look first at the Points Based System (PBS) - the current policy system that migrants from outside the European Economic Area must apply for, to enter the UK. The PBS is so named because migrants are given points for attributes, such as qualifications, which are then used to decide in an objective way whether the application is successful (or not).

The PBS is split into five tiers, though only four are now active. These are:

  1. Tier 1 - High value migrants
  2. Tier 2 - Skilled workers
  3. Tier 4 - Students
  4. Tier 5 - Youth Mobility and Temporary workers

The system is complex, and there seem to be a number of routes through which data talent could enter the UK. But when we delve into the policy, we can see that the routes for data scientists and highly skilled data talent can be limited. To illustrate some of the hurdles, three migration scenarios are presented below.

A data entrepreneur

The Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) visa is a clear choice for a prospective data entrepreneur, but they could also use the Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) route if a recent graduate.

This route is for people who want to set up or take over, and be actively involved in running, a business or a number of businesses in the UK. But it demands money - £200,000 of the entrepreneur's own money or a reduction to £50,000 if the funding is provided by a venture capitalist, a Government Department or a seed funding competition endorsed by UKTI. This requirement may limit the number of people that can apply for the visa, and some argue, rightly so. But if we are keen to ‘roll out the red carpet’ to high potential growth companies in the data analytics sector to the UK, the system needs to change.

One way that this could happen is through changes to funding structures, or creation of an entirely new entrepreneurial route. As such, UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) should consider a Tier 1 (Start Up) route pilot, initially with limited numbers to test viability. This should be aimed at entrepreneurs and micro businesses with great business ideas and a clear path for growth, but still at early stages of development, or in pre growth phase.

This could work similarly to the Standard Visitor visa (which replaced the Prospective Entrepreneur visa), with a Genuine Entrepreneur test, with supplementary support from UKTI and third sector, or membership organisations such as The Entrepreneurs Network (following the Designated Competent Body model that the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) route uses). However, this route would enable entrepreneurs to stay in the UK for 24 months (rather than the 6 months allowed on the visitor visa), and have recourse to mentoring and support (from UKTI and expert representatives such as Tech City UK).

A data scientist in financial services

For this role, a prospective migrant would look to the Tier 2 (General) route.

It is designed for skilled migrants who have a job offer to come to the UK to work in a role that can’t be filled by a local worker. There is a cap to the number of migrants that can come to the UK on the Tier 2 (General) route, which is fixed at 20,700 per year. And not just any skilled worker can come to the UK,  the occupation that they take up must either be on the Shortage Occupations List (SOL), which outlines particular occupations where the UK is suffering from skills gaps, or employers are required to conduct a Resident Labour Market test (which is explained below).

The list includes ‘Actuaries, Economists and Statisticians’ (the occupational category that data scientists are included in), but specifies that only bio-informaticians and informaticians can work under Tier 2 (General) via the Shortage Occupations List. This means that a financial services data scientist is very unlikely to get a visa under this route, though the (more demanding) Resident Labour Market Test route might well be a possibility.

Importantly, this gap in the framework may impact a company’s ability to quickly hire the talent it needs to grow.

Things could be soon getting worse for Tier 2 applicants. Over the last couple of months, we have repeatedly seen the share of the 20,700 cap exceeded, with over 1000 skilled applicants turned away. According to the CBI this is a severe blockage in the UK’s efforts to boost productivity.

At the same time, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) have been tasked with providing advice on reducing work migration from outside the EU, while making sure Britain is open to the ‘best and brightest’ talent. This may not bode well for non European data talent and might suggest that we will see a further tightening of the system.

A postdoc looking to take up an academic position in a university statistics department

In our recent report, Skills of the Datavores, we focused on data skills and industry. Looking at the other side of the coin, Universities UK addressed academia and skills needs - they identified that a significant barrier to providing data training across all subject areas at university was a lack of lecturers with the necessary skills. 

If the UK doesn’t have talented data analytics teaching staff in both schools, and universities we will not be equipped to teach the next generations of data scientists.

This is clearly a vicious cycle, and in the short term may be remedied by hiring academic migrants.

Since the closure of the Post study work visa in 2012, there has been a perceived gap in the policy system for retaining skilled, but not necessarily world leading or entrepreneurial graduates. In recent years we have seen tightening, but relatively stable conditions for academic mobility to the UK. In many instances academic staff will take the Tier 2 (General) route, applying under the resident labour market test.

To pass the test, an employer must have advertised the job in an appropriate way for the sector and be able to show that no suitably skilled, settled worker can do the job. UKVI decides where the employer must advertise the job, for how long, and what information needs to be included in the advertisement.

This route can be particularly onerous for employers for two main reasons: 1) the process is extremely time consuming (with no guarantee of a return on the time invested), and 2) the cap might mean that no visas are left - at best postponing the application, and at worst abandoning it altogether.

Some good news for the postdoc applicant is that employers can offer a job to some migrants without having to meet all of the conditions of the resident labour market test, for example, if the job is on the list of PhD level jobs.

In addition to the productivity benefits of data driven decision making in companies (outlined in Skills of the Datavores), we know that a culturally diverse workforce can bring a number of externalities that boost innovation. These include generating new ideas and helping to reach international markets.

The government should therefore focus on skilled migration as an integral component of the skills pipeline - looking at how we can more effectively use these workers to strategically fill data skills gaps in both industry and academia, where it is likely that initiatives to train data talent will lag behind demand in coming years.


George Windsor

George Windsor

George Windsor

Senior Policy Researcher

George was a Senior Policy Researcher in the Creative and Digital Economy team.

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