Policy

A new UK visa could steal your top tech talent

Without meaningful immigration reform, U.S.-trained foreign graduates could head across the pond.

An airport with a large sign reading "Welcome to the UK Border"

The U.S. immigration system turns away hundreds of thousands of highly skilled tech workers every year.

Photo: Ben Fathers/AFP via Getty Images

Almost as soon as he took office, President Biden began the work of undoing a lot of the damage the Trump administration did to the U.S. H-1B visa program. He allowed a Trump-era ban on entry by H-1B holders to expire and withdrew a Trump proposal to prohibit H-1B visa holders’ spouses from working in the U.S. More recently, his administration has expanded the number of degrees considered eligible for special STEM OPT visas.

But the U.S. immigration system still turns away hundreds of thousands of highly skilled — and in many cases U.S.-educated — tech workers every year. Now the U.K. is trying to capitalize on the United States’ failure to reform its policy regarding high-skilled immigrants with a new visa that could poach American-trained tech talent across the pond. And there’s good reason to believe it could work.

The High Potential Individual visa seeks to attract “talented graduates in areas such as science, engineering and research from internationally renowned universities,” according to the U.K.’s Home Office.

For the visa, the primary criterion is that applicants should have graduated within the last five years from one of the world’s top-ranked 50 universities outside of the U.K. Twenty of the 50 schools on the Home Office’s list are in the U.S., including tech feeder schools like Harvard, Stanford, CalTech and MIT. Unlike H-1B visa applicants, they do not need a job offer to apply and can work in the U.K. for two years if they have a bachelor’s or master’s degree or for three years if they have a doctorate.

“We want the businesses of tomorrow to be built here today — which is why I call on students to take advantage of this incredible opportunity to forge their careers here,” said Rishi Sunak, the U.K.’s finance minister, in a statement launching the rollout of the program in May.

Just weeks into its launch, the HPI visa has proven popular, with many people expressing interest, according to Simon Kenny, an immigration lawyer at Muldoon Britton, a U.K. law firm that specializes in business visas from the U.S to the U.K. “It's quick, it's straightforward … one can get a decision within three weeks,” Kenny told Protocol. “I have had queries for the very first time about the High Potential Individual visa, because people have had enough waiting within the U.S. immigration system.”

In 2020, over 16,000 graduates from the American schools on the U.K. list were employed under the two-year STEM OPT. When their visas expire, if they are not among the 18% of applicants who were selected for an H1-B visa in the 2023 lottery, those American-trained STEM graduates will have to apply for other visas — which have complexities and costs of their own — or simply head for the exit.

“I have had queries for the very first time about the High Potential Individual visa, because people have had enough waiting within the U.S. immigration system.”

“The U.S. already educates the world's best and brightest. People come here from all over the world to get a world-class education,” Linda Moore, president and CEO of TechNet, told Protocol. “We are educating them and then sending them back home to compete against us. That is what is happening right now.”

The High Potential Individual visa is part of a broader set of measures instituted by the U.K. post-Brexit to attract talented tech workers into the country and to beef up its tech ecosystem, which is growing but remains in the shadow of the U.S. The U.K. recently launched a Global Talent visa program to attract academics, researchers, artists and digital technologists and relaxed rules for foreign graduates of British universities to stay and work.

Despite leaving the EU, the U.K. remains a global financial and technology powerhouse. In March, the Digital Economy Council, a U.K. government body, valued the country’s tech ecosystem at $1 trillion, becoming the third country to reach this milestone after the U.S. and China. So far this year, about $14 billion has been secured in venture capital funding by U.K. startups, according to government figures, placing it second in the world behind the U.S., but ahead of China.

That could make the U.K. an appealing destination for American-trained STEM graduates and would be a blow to the country whose universities trained them. “We have people who have tried more than three times [to secure an H1-B visa], and if you run out of time here and you don't have an alternative visa, packing your bags and going to the U.K. … looks pretty appealing,” said Yvonne Toy, founding partner at Corporate Immigration Partners, a San Francisco-based immigration law firm.

The HPI visa is proving appealing not only to foreign graduates. It has also attracted American graduates of the schools on the list. Kathleen Hein graduated with an MBA from UCLA in 2018 and now works as director of Product for a streaming company based in Santa Monica (which she asked Protocol not to name). She is in the process of gathering her documents to apply for the HPI visa, with the hopes of moving to Glasgow, a city with a fast-growing fintech industry that has attracted many companies — including Barclays, which recently set up a new expansive campus.

“The U.S. already educates the world's best and brightest … We are educating them and then sending them back home to compete against us. That is what is happening right now.”

Hein described the process of applying as “shockingly easy.” “The hardest part of this is that I have got to bring the cat. Literally the hardest part will be an unhappy cat on a transcontinental flight,” she said.

For all of the upsides, the U.K.’s HPI visa has also been heavily criticized as “elitist.” Even as it stands to lure away talent from U.S. schools, there are no schools from Africa, the Middle East, Latin America or South Asia on the list. And unlike an H-1B visa, the HPI visa is not renewable, meaning graduates will have to switch to another type of visa and won’t have a clear path toward permanent residency in the U.K.

The U.K. is not the only country attempting to lure foreign skilled workers away from the U.S. During the Trump administration, Canada expanded its immigration options in the race for global tech talent. While it has not significantly displaced the U.S. as the key destination of foreign tech workers, it was successful in luring thousands of highly skilled tech workers and startups to Toronto and other cities by providing permanent residency visas within weeks of application.

Despite the challenges — and mounting competition — the U.S. remains the most attractive destination for foreign tech workers. But the tech industry is piling pressure on Congress to pass meaningful reforms to the immigration system to allow the U.S. to attract and retain talent.

One ripe opportunity, Moore said, exists in the COMPETES Act, which would lift the green card cap for foreign workers who received STEM Ph.D.s in the U.S. Different versions of the bill have already passed the House and Senate. But the two chambers still need to reconcile that bill before it can head to President Biden’s desk.

In the meantime, the U.K. is open for business.

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