Immigration: The state of play

Immigration: The state of play
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

July 17th 2013 at 10:15AM

Develop checks up on the regulations that are slowing studios from bringing new talent to their shores

[This feature was published in the July 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

Immigration is a litigious issue that sits uncomfortably with the multiculturalism of the modern world, which games are very much a part of.

For an industry such as games development, immigration is an important wellspring for talent and specialist skills that cannot be found locally.

How are studios confronting the cacophony of immigration laws in the UK? And is the need for skilled workers as prevalent as its been in previous years?

In September 2011, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) identified that skilled migrant workers should be sought in order to plug the UK skills shortage. As studios in Britain scour far and wide for new talent, the education system has yet to catah up with the industry’s demands, and may not for some time. Faced with this, studios have no option but to look abroad for personnel with specific skills to aid their projects.

CLOSING THE BORDER

The first stop for UK studios that have exhausted their search on the island nation is mainland Europe.

“If we couldn’t hire freely from Europe we would be struggling to hire the staff we need to complete our current projects to the standard they need to attain,” Brynley Gibson, executive producer at Headstrong Games, maker of House of the Dead: Overkill and Battalion Wars 2, tells Develop. “This is not just about bodies but about finding candidates that hit the right quality bar.

“There is not a lack of candidates out there, but there is a lack in the quality of candidates and, of course, every developer wants to take only the best they can.”

But Britain's membership of the EU, and the positive immigration laws that citizens are entitled to because of it, is now under increasing scrutiny from David Cameron's coalition government. And that’s a change that Gibson doesn’t want to see.

“I seriously doubt the current legislation is going to change radically as these rules provide so much benefit to the UK, and for citizens of the UK to work elsewhere. If something is good for the bottom line I can’t see it being allowed to regress.

“However, with Cameron promising a referendum on Europe in the next parliament and UKIP [UK Independence Party] on an undeniable upturn, there is a threat, however slight. Restrictions wouldn’t just be damaging for the games industry, but for any skilled employer in the UK.”

LEFT IN LIMBO

Gibson’s concerns are shared by many other studios and segments of the UK games industry. Although Britain’s immigration system is by no means the most complex, it’s not especially straightforward either, as recuiters at several studios have confirmed.

Sara McNaught, talent acquisition specialist at Jagex, has been through the process of recruiting new starters from overseas on a number of occasions, and she argues that the officials are still leaving businesses and applicants with gaping uncertainties.

“Recruiting for employees outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) where Jagex has sponsored a migrant worker can be an unpredictable process with regards to timings. We have had a migrant worker’s visa approved within weeks, whereas some have taken months. It can be hard on the migrant worker, as they are in ‘limbo’ until they receive a response from the Home Office. They also need an idea of timings in order to give notice to their current employer and arrange relocating to the UK.

“From an employer’s perspective, not knowing the time frame isn’t helpful either as we are unable to predict when the worker will be able to join the studio, and so unable to plan projects as effectively.”

NEED-TO-KNOW BASICS

If, like some of the studios above, hiring skilled staff from abroad is the only way for you to fill those waiting specialist seats, don’t despair. Immigration law in the UK and elsewhere is shifting all the time. But by taking the time to understand the legislation, even at a basic level, you stand a better chance of filling those specialist vacancies sooner rather than later.

“I certainly make it my business to make sure I am fully aware of any barriers there are to helping someone move across from another country to settling into the UK,” agrees Emma-Jayne Cole, HR business partner at Creative Assembly.

“By being immigration-savvy, it can lead a studio to having the very best developers on-board no matter where they come from.”

The system in the UK is somewhat faster than other countries but it still takes time. With the help of global immigration law specialist Fragomen LLP, here are some of the basics you can expect if you intend to recruit immigrants for the first time:

Your company needs to be a registered sponsor: It’s not normally possible to recruit a non-EU worker unless you have a sponsor licence – an agreement that your firm will take responsibility for the individual in question. Sponsor licences are granted to legitimate businesses, which is something all games companies should be able to attest quite readily. The applications themselves are dense and can take at least two weeks to prepare. Once submitted, they take currently around a month to be processed and granted.

Advertising for jobs: Before you can hire from outside the UK, you must also pass the Resident Labour Market Test, to prove there are no suitable UK workers available. This has a danger of slowing down your approval process, but exists for the benefit of UK residents. An advert must be placed in Jobcentre Plus and one other location for 28 days. Any potentially suitable UK residents must (‘not unreasonably’) be interviewed and record must be kept. The Home Office has relaxed its rules here. It recognises that there is a national shortage of skilled systems engineers in the video games sector and has waived the advertising requirement.

Salary: A new migrant hire would need a Tier 2 General visa as oppose to the ICT visa for existing employees. Tier 2 General workers must to be paid at least £20,300 or the going rate for the occupation. The minimum salary for systems engineers, for example, is £24,900 for a new entrant or £30,600 for an experienced worker.

Securing a visa: Visa applications from outside of the UK cost £483 and generally take between five and 15 days. However, applications from outside the UK are subject to the coalition government’s cap on immigration. The cap is not the issue, as only half the available places will be used. What it does do is add to the time delay. The cap is split between 12 monthly pots and administered through the issuing of certificates of sponsorship (COS).

LOWERING THE BARRIER

“On the whole, UK immigration law and practice is at least as effective as systems elsewhere in the world. Visa applications typically take five to 15 days, a turnaround that is only exceeded by Singapore,” (see Case Study: Singapore below) explains Ian Robinson, government advisory manager for EMEA at corporate immigration law firm Fragomen.

“That is not to say there are not barriers. Visa extensions in the UK can take three or four months and the authorities hold on to passports throughout. The administrative burdens of recruiting a worker from overseas can take months. These issues cut across every sector, computer gaming included.”

The process of hiring immigrants is daunting and time-consuming. Ideally, most studios would prefer to do without the additional paperwork, and thus keep their search within the borders of the UK. But until such time as there are enough UK residents with the skills the industry needs, hiring immigrants will be a necessity.

“To truly reach its full potential, the UK games industry needs more home-grown talent and an immigration system that welcomes the very best people from overseas,” declares UKIE CEO Jo Twist.

She points out that UKIE has been working hard to improve the UK’s own skills base through the Next Gen Skills campaign, which has successfully got computer science back on to the curriculum. But she also recognises that getting skilled workers into the UK needs to be accessible if the country’s studios large and small are to remain in top order.

“We also need to have an immigration system that allows the best overseas talent easy access to this country. We know that there are some improvements that can be made to the current system. For example, we worked with the government’s MAC to make sure that games companies could still use what’s known as the Shortage Occupation List to fast-track certain roles.

“As a result, the MAC recommended adding ‘games designers’ to this list, making it easier to bring designers in from overseas. We will keep monitoring how this and other immigration policies are working, and we’ll explore whether we can make this quicker route available for other games jobs.”

CASE STUDY: SINGAPORE

Jamie Stowe, now technical designer at 22Cans in Guildford, UK, explains how he got on when he emigrated to Singapore: “My wife is Malaysian and we worked at Codemasters for both the Malaysian and UK studios where we met. Codemasters were unable to secure a permanent UK visa for her, and she was forced to leave the country. Having worked in Singapore before, she decided to return there and secured a job with Ubisoft. I decided to follow her; we weren’t married at the time, and it was quite difficult to secure a job.

“I mention my wife, because she is the single reason I was able to secure the job in Singapore. Ubisoft were taking less of a risk with me as they were already employing my girlfriend, so could be confident I would stick around. I flew out to visit my wife at my own expense and at the same time was invited for multiple interviews with Ubisoft. They were not particularly looking to hire, but on returning to UK was offered the job in mid-June 2009. My wife had joined in April.

“Once I was offered the job, I had to fill in an application for an Employee Pass (visa). Ubisoft took care of all the costs and most of the paperwork, I only had to fill in one form of about eight pages. By the next morning the application had been approved and I had a letter that would grant me stay in Singapore as long as I was employed by Ubisoft. I joined Ubisoft in July 2009, and they paid for my flight and first month of accommodation.

“Singapore has probably the most efficient [immigration system] in the world, and as long as you meet criteria on salary, work history and education, it is very straightforward to be employed there.”