When the UK voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, some recruiters in the data and analytics sector felt the impact straight away. Mark Dexter, founder of KDR Recruitment, says one of his European data software clients decided halt its expansion into the UK due to uncertainty. “They decided almost overnight not to take that risk,” he says.
Also for Roisin McCarthy, manager of Datatech Analytics, the referendum had an immediate effect. She says, “a British company retracted a job offer from a British candidate within a week of the Brexit vote because the organisation was unsure of how it would impact them.” McCarthy points out that the company still hasn’t made that hire, as they are waiting for the repercussions to be felt and to decide whether or not to invest in the UK as their data centre.
Recent announcements have caused more concern for those in the sector. On 17th January, Prime Minister Theresa May finally elaborated on the type of departure she would pursue. She stated, “what I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market.” The single market allows free access of movement of goods, services, capital and people between member states of the European Union and so data and analytics talent finders are worried that there will be rigid restrictions on the freedom of movement of EU citizens.
There are - and will be - a lot of jobs to fill in this sector. According to techUK, the industry association for the technology sector, big data is expected to add £241 billion to the economy.
However, there is not a great enough supply of skilled workers in the UK to meet the demand. According to the industry association, the UK is losing £2 billion as many roles remain vacant.
Of the candidates that do fill those positions, 50% are EU nationals according to estimates from McCarthy and Kim Nilsson, founder of Pivigo, a marketplace that matches data scientists with data projects.
McCarthy specifies why EU nationals are so important to the data and analytics industry. “Talent with the skills we need is coming in from overseas with two or three years’ experience and that is really hard to find in the UK.”
Both McCarthy and Nilsson give anecdotal evidence that in recent months this talent has become increasing reluctant to come to here. Nilsson says, “When we speak to individuals based in Europe, they hesitate about coming here because they don’t know what their status is going to be and they might not feel so welcome.”
McCarthy notes a lack of enthusiasm among a particular age group. “This year in the milkrounds, there have been far fewer candidates who are of European nationality apply to us as students looking for graduate entry level work,” she says.
Perhaps those soon-to-be data professionals want to minimise the risk of establishing their career in a country that might eject them in the not-too-distant future. To date, the government has not given a guarantee to the 3.3 million EU nationals living and working in the UK that their working and residency rights will be protected.
Nilsson says that the best-case scenario would be that the EU nationals in the country at the moment would be allowed to stay. “If that were to not happen, it would be a severe blow to the industry,” she warns.
To compound the problem, demand for skilled data and analytics professionals in the UK is only going to grow. According to findings from the Centre for Economics and Business Research, 182,000 jobs will be created by big data and IoT between 2015 and 2020.
For Dexter, a great deal of demand will come from the need for UK companies to implement GDPR initiatives. Despite voting to leave to the EU, UK companies will have to abide by the Regulation - due to come into force in May 2018, even if official EU exit proceedings begin in March 2017, the UK will not leave the EU until the summer of 2019. Dexter says, “the big irony is that the volume of work for data and analytics professionals is only likely to increase because of the ramifications of GDPR.”
Nilsson has noticed a general increase in interest from companies about data science. She says, “in the last few months, I’ve gone from explaining what data science is and why they should do it to discussing how they should do it.” The marketplace founder puts this increase in enthusiasm down to a successful educational phase about data, crediting publications, conferences and large tech businesses for shining a light on it.
She adds, “it is in the interest of businesses to do data science and there is no doubt that interest is growing, but to fuel that growth we need talented individuals and the big question is how do we find them and bring them into the country.”
A silver lining to this cloud of doubt over free movement of people could be an easing of the restrictions on non-EU citizens entering the country to work as data professionals. Dexter has already seen a large number of international citizens, especially from India and Pakistan, enter the country to do data work. For him, this will soften the blow of any potential controls on EU migrants.
However, McCarthy says it is “incredibly hard” to source organisations that are willing to sponsor entry visas for international workers. She says, “I could go to Timbuktu or the Moon to find the skills, but if the organisations don’t have the sponsorship allocation from the government to employ them legally, then it is irrelevant.”
Concern and uncertainty are the overriding sentiments of these three data recruitment experts as they are across the recruitment sector as a whole. That is understandable considering Prime Minister May stated that she wants this country to be a “magnet for international talent,” while simultaneously “controlling immigration from Europe to Britain.”
Dexter says that he hopes the situation around freedom of movement will be clarified once Article 50 is invoked, signalling the UK’s official departure from the EU. He says once the article is triggered and they see how negotiations are going and what different countries’ standpoints might be, then they’ll get a clearer picture on how any potential immigration points system might work.
If the UK, specifically London, loses its position as Europe’s leading data hub because workers cannot take up jobs here, Nilsson could see the sector moving to the continent to cities like Berlin or Barcelona. However, the hope is that it will remain here. Dexter says, “the world is data-driven and the UK has to be data-driven to stay competitive. If we can’t find a way of ensuring a steady flow of skill in and out of the country, it will have a negative impact.”