Why Visas Are an International Problem for the Finance Industry

The competition for qualified and skilful treasury, finance and risk personnel is high with appropriate staff sometimes difficult to find and cross-border searches a necessary for multinational corporations (MNCs) looking for the best talent regardless of where they come from. There is the visa situation to be aware of, however, and MNCs should be aware of the rules and regulations, timeframe and other legal aspects of recruiting staff on a global scale across borders, especially as the former relatively permissive climate is tightened up.  

In the UK, for instance, some of the more sensationalist newspapers could lead you to think the UK treasury and finance job market is awash with workers from abroad, marginalising the prospects of hard done by UK nationals. However, in my experience working in recruitment for the internal audit, enterprise and risk management sectors, the reality is somewhat different. In fact, these and other areas of the finance industry are actually facing significant skills shortages and need to be able to recruit the best people on a global basis.

Unfortunately, many governments around the world in the UK, US and elsewhere have responded to the public mood about low economic prospects and political pressures over the immigration issue by tightening up their entry procedures. While this may be seen as a positive move by the general public, it does have significant implications for the labour market, especially niche areas requiring specialist skills.

The Global Competition for Talent

The risk, treasury and finance industry is a global one, which is largely dominated by multinational firms offering the opportunity to work abroad as an incentive and expecting high fliers to have done some time abroad in different marketplaces.

International mobility is often considered as a standard part of an individual’s career path. Moreover, emerging markets across the world are offering attractive opportunities in addition to the more established areas of North America, Europe and Australasia, further deepening the global talent competition, while the rise of technology-enabled mobile working is also contributing towards the trend. For example, in one MNC in Switzerland that the Internal Audit Connections (IAC) recruitment consultancy works with, each member of the 12-strong finance team is a different nationality.

Conversely, despite the increasing demand for international mobility, many influential governments have revised their visa policies in recent years post-crash to make relocation much harder. For example, the US has a complex visa system which even experienced domestic businesses can find challenging to negotiate. The end result is that it has become increasingly hard for well qualified professionals without a US passport or Green Card to be sponsored by US firms. This means that, in the time it can take to organise a visa, many candidates will have already moved on to another opportunity in another area of the world.

The UK Situation

In the UK the government has promised to reduce immigration down to tens of thousands by 2015 as part of its re-election campaign, so just as in the US immigration is getting more difficult. Part of the UK’s rather blunt strategy to achieve a lessening off of immigrants has been amending the Tier 1 visa programme. This previously allowed those who fulfilled certain criteria, (i.e. professionally qualified, earning a certain level of income, etc) to enter the UK almost automatically and to work freely. Anyone involved in working with this system knew that there was room for improvement as some of those who received it weren’t actually as well qualified as the scheme stipulated. However, rather than tweaking a fundamentally workable system, the UK government closed all Tier 1 applications – therefore cutting off a valuable supply of well qualified finance and other professionals from around the world.

This move seems to make little sense as in reality immigration usually creates positive economic benefits for everyone. The people previously entering the UK on a Tier 1 visa would be earning very good salaries and would therefore be paying a substantive amount of tax. In fact, a recent study from University College London’s migration research unit concluded that migrants coming into the country since 2000 have contributed around £25bn net to the UK’s public finances. The survey also found that people from European Economic Area (EEA) countries make the most positive contribution, paying about 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits from 2001 to 2011. Recent immigrants are also less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than people native to the UK. Interestingly, most studies demonstrating concerns over immigration refer to illegal immigrants and benefit tourists: the above mentioned professionals fit into none of these areas of concern, yet our access to them is now severely limited.

So, contrary to the tabloid newspaper image of ‘scrounging’ immigrants coming into the UK and draining it of resources, prior to the recent Tier 1 changes, the UK economy and society was actually benefiting from immigrants. The extensive education costs of highly qualified professionals that had trained and paid for by other countries, while coming to the UK to work, had provided a cheap and easy pool of free talent. The pool is now, however, running dry.

The UK Visa Sponsorship Solution

An alternative route for UK finance professionals from abroad to work in treasury or related fields is for companies to sponsor individuals to work for them under the Tier 2 visa programme; this sponsorship can also be transferred to other companies. However, the scheme has been set up in such a way that there are now restrictions on how many people can be sponsored. For example, a maximum of 20,700 skilled workers will be allowed to come to the UK under the Tier 2 (General) stipulations to do jobs with an annual salary below £152,100 between April 2013 and April 2014. Furthermore, the perception of many companies IAC works with is that this process is too difficult and risky. It is seen as being open to change at any time as a government whim takes off, rather than a well thought out policy. This means that companies are reluctant to take the chance on investing time and effort in sponsoring talented people which could ultimately come to nothing.

Until recently, candidates who had completed their chartered accountancy with one of the big four would often relocate from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to London. Many of these individuals would plan to stay for a couple of years but would end up staying much longer, meeting partners, having families and successful careers here. However, under the current system, it appears that this will no longer be possible. These accomplished individuals, who in the past would have added to the UK talent pool, will either no longer come or will only be allowed to stay for a maximum of two years.

As a recruitment business working with international businesses, IAC speak to and meet some of the best educated, talented and motivated people from around the world. A business that hires this calibre of individual, regardless of which country they come from, can only excel commercially, while the countries that allow this to happen can in my opinion only benefit from the dynamism and economic growth that follows.

I fear that the US, UK and similarly minded governments are being short-sighted and are damaging their respective economies. Those countries such as Switzerland, the UAE and other more rapidly growing economies that remain open to those with a global career in mind, will gain from an increasing influx of talented individuals. What is certain is that developed economies need talented and well qualified individuals to aid their recoveries – it shouldn’t matter where these people come from.