Brexit's Tech Brain Drain May Have Already Begun

By Jessica Rose on at

As Article 50 is triggered today, many European expats in Britain, as well as European-minded locals, are packing up, moving on or eyeing up their options. Brexit brain drain could spell disaster for industries like technology already facing shortages of skilled talent. Many talented technologists aren’t waiting to see how Brexit plays out and are already seeking new homes for their in-demand talents overseas.

Linda Sandvik is the Norwegian born technologist who helped bring technical education to students in the U.K. and around the world through co-founding Code Club. She’s also worked as a developer for Last.fm, as a Guardian technologist and ran her own consultancy in her 12 years in London. She had sought British citizenship before the referendum to take part, but was unsuccessful. While government campaigns and rising anti-immigrant sentiment in England helped set the backdrop, watching the Brexit referendum pass as she was unable to vote finally led Linda to take her talents back to Norway.

A mere handful of the Code Clubs that Linda has started - there are over 5500 around the world.

Data scientists are in extreme demand across the U.K. With over two decades experience and a graduate degree in business intelligence, and a graduate degree in data science underway Edafe Onerhime is a tech recruiter's dream. She and her partner are still in their Yorkshire home, for now. Citing her international client base and the “the freedom of movement, diversity and tolerance the EU enshrines” they’re tying up loose ends and doing their research for a move in the coming months. While still undecided, Dublin or Lisbon are on their shortlist.

Patrick Barnes and his wife Fiona run a web agency serving just under 100 small and medium sized businesses. A new business serving many European and international clients that wasn’t tied to any physical storefront provided the freedom to move on when xenophobia surrounding the Brexit vote clashed with their values. Concerns over how a hard Brexit could change their ability to trade with European clients compounded the pressure to seek a European base. They’re currently packing and preparing for a move to South Brittany, France in a few months.

Katharine Beaumont

With a background covering the natural sciences and law, Katharine Beaumont’s pivot into programming in Ruby and Java helped propel her into a role with the Voxxed conference series. A recognized presenter at tech conferences herself, she points to her and her Irish husband sharing a European identity as a large part of why they chose to relocate from Leeds to Kildare. The Brexit results landed in the middle of a household discussion over whether to move elsewhere in the U.K. or to move to Ireland and helped make their decision to relocate overseas an easy one.

Raphael Pierzina

Raphael Pierzina is a German Python and Go developer who has been based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His open source contributions, community outreach and public speaking have let him make an impact beyond his in-demand skill set for the technologists in Scotland and around the globe. He saw the Brexit result as an opportunity to expand his network to better understand the motivations for voters outside his social and professional circles. Eventually, the uncertainty looming for EU nationals after Brexit, the impact of the IP Act and worry that he wasn’t wanted in his community won out over the love for his adopted home. Raphael is preparing for a move to Berlin but keeping an eye out for developments that might make resettling in Scotland a possibility.

Why This Matters

The loss of a handful of technologists might not feel immediately urgent but may signal a larger trend. Each of the technologists profiled spoke of friends and peers who had toyed with the idea of leaving, with varying degrees of determination. With the technology roles increasing at a rate twice as fast as the larger economy, an existing skills shortage and a heavy reliance on foreign talent the British tech industry’s momentum could be decimated through brain drain. As tech workers contribute twice as much productive income to the economy as non-tech talent, an exodus of technical talent could spell dark times for the wider British economy.

Who Is Staying Behind

The ability to pick up and move to a new country in search of greener pastures is a privilege few have access to. Roles in technology often carry a higher wage than non-technical industries and technical talent faces lower barriers in seeking visas. Many technologists interviewed will remain in the U.K. through Brexit, citing family ties, work or a desire to stay and effect change at home. While few technologists interviewed offered optimistic outlooks of a post-Brexit British tech scene, many are determined to do what they can in its wake.