Brave new world: Recruitment of fintech talent in the new UK immigration environment

Rick Steves

In this article, solicitor Denise Osterwald outlines what UK businesses should do to attract top talent from abroad.

By Denise Osterwald, Senior Solicitor at Gherson Solicitors LLP

As the fintech sector in the UK continues to grow and gather momentum, many businesses have been looking for fresh talent to help them expand their operations.

Until the beginning of 2021 these businesses could choose from a relatively large pool of candidates who did not require visas and could hit the ground running. British/Irish/EU/EEA/Swiss nationals and all other migrants settled in the UK could start work immediately without having to go through a lengthy and expensive visa process before they could even set foot in the UK.

Since the end of the Brexit transition period (1 January 2021), however, the number of available candidates who do not need a visa has shrunk significantly. Now all EU/EEA/Swiss nationals require the same immigration documentation as those from all other countries around the globe.

The global shortage of tech talent in the UK has made the recruitment marketplace very competitive. Businesses are already struggling to attract potential new employees, and even when they find someone suitable, that is not the end of the story. It is now very likely that their preferred candidate will require a visa.

Until now, many businesses have never had to think about factoring the immigration process into their recruitment timetable or their budgets. Visa applications can routinely take several weeks, sometimes months, and can cost several thousand of pounds depending on the number of applicants (i.e. single applicant or family) and the length of the visa applied for (anything from a few months to five years).

To some extent, financial and administrative support for visa applications has become a useful differentiator in the recruitment process. Many applicants will seek out those employers who offer assistance with the immigration process, and the more comprehensive and generous that assistance and support is, the more likely businesses are to attract top talent.

The general issue that many start-ups and established fintech firms will face is that the number of visas that might work for a new recruit is very limited. Most visas personal to the new employee are unlikely to be suitable, either because they are lacking a prior connection to the UK (required for a family or ancestry visa for example), or because, while they may be talented, they do not fit into the exceptionally talented category required for a Global Talent visa, for example.

All that businesses can do, therefore, is to start engaging with the UK’s so-called points-based system (PBS), which requires them to obtain a licence to sponsor overseas workers for a work visa. This process in itself takes time. It takes time to compile the application documents, and the UK Home Office takes a minimum of eight weeks to process the application once submitted. This timeframe can often be significantly longer, especially if the authorities decide to undertake a pre-licence audit of the business making the application. If that is the case, the Home Office will visit the business premises to ascertain whether those involved in the administration and maintenance of the licence understand their responsibilities, and whether the business’ systems and processes are sufficient to administer the licence compliantly. A sponsor licence for small businesses costs £536, and £1,476 for a medium to large business. If you are engaging the services of an immigration law advisor, you will also need to add their professional fees to the total amount. For an additional fee of £500, the processing time can be reduced to around 10 working days, but places to get this priority processing are extremely limited.

It is not possible to apply for a work visa for a candidate until the sponsor licence is in place. Most candidates will qualify for a so-called Skilled Worker visa. This is a visa that is tied to the sponsoring business and, if successful, will allow the new employee to come to the UK for up to five years, after which they could qualify for indefinite leave to remain in the UK (i.e. permanent settlement).

This type of visa application generally takes 1-2 weeks to put together but can take significantly longer if the applicant needs to pass an English language test and/or obtain a tuberculosis certificate. Apart from having to submit an application form online and upload various supporting documents, the applicant also has to attend an appointment at a visa application centre where they have to provide their fingerprints and have a digital photograph taken. From the date of the appointment, it usually takes the UK authorities 3-5 weeks to process the application. Depending on where the application is submitted there may be faster processing options for an additional fee. Once the visa is granted the applicant can travel to the UK to take up their new position.

The cost of a Skilled Worker visa depends on the length of the visa and the number of applicants, but the overall fees for a Skilled Worker visa application can range from around £5,500 for a three-year visa for one applicant to around £10,000 for a family of three. This does not include any professional fees, which may be charged by an immigration law advisor, should you decide to engage one to assist with the application.

Since the UK left the EU, businesses have – even more than previously – had to come up with novel ideas to attract talented personnel. That includes forging partnerships with overseas colleges and universities to be able to catch talent before it even gets to the open recruitment market, offering apprenticeships to bright young people they can grow into the talent they require, and reviewing their offering in respect of salary and benefits. Immigration is now likely to play a part in all of those areas.

To sum up, here is what those businesses wanting to attract top talent should do:

Think about your offering, include immigration support as a perk, where possible;
Check if your preferred candidate qualifies for a personal visa (if they do, no sponsorship is required), and offer immigration assistance if they do;
Think about obtaining a sponsor licence whether you need it right now or not. Chances are that you will want to employ someone who needs a visa in the future;
Think about engaging an immigration law advisor who can assist you in setting up all of the required systems and processes, help you in obtaining/administering a sponsor licence, and undertake all future visa applications on your behalf.

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