Starships and enterprise: could overseas talent help take the Scottish space industry to new heights?

15/11/2023
Kelly Hardman (Fragomen)

By Kelly Hardman, senior manager, Fragomen

THE SPACE sector is developing at warp speed: the global space economy grew 8% to $546 billion in 2022 and is projected to climb another 41% over the next five years. 

That’s no less the case in Scotland, where the booming space sector is also defying market gravity. According to a report from the UK Space Industry, it grew by almost £40 million in a year. The number of space organisations in Scotland also rocketed from 144 to 183, and the number of sector jobs now exceeds 8,500.

There are currently five Scottish launch facilities either under construction or in the advanced planning stage – SaxaVord Spaceport in Unst in Shetland; Space Hub Sutherland at A’ Mhòine; Spaceport 1 in the Outer Hebrides; Prestwick Spaceport in Ayrshire and Spaceport Machrihanish in Argyll – and further significant investment is coming down the line. 

Furthermore, it was recently announced that British astronauts may soon fly to the International Space Station on a private mission. The UK Space Agency and Axiom Space are to collaborate on a commercial human spaceflight mission, supported by the European Space Agency. A date has not yet been set for lift off.

No longer is this just a field for astronauts; a variety of STEM skills continue to be in fierce demand to take Scotland’s – and the UK’s – space ambitions to the next level. However, this growing industry is seeing a critical skills shortage, with organisations facing challenges with recruitment and retention that, in turn, restrict growth and productivity – especially with mid and senior-level personnel. Key roles in demand within the Space sector include engineers, computing, and data analysts, as well as educators, communicators and researchers.

In a new report published by the Space Skills Alliance for the UK Space Agency, more than half of organisations reported a skills gap in their workforce, and, of those trying to recruit from overseas, 83% experienced difficulties.

To the immigration options – and beyond!

When trying to attract the best and brightest overseas talent, organisations often turn to the UK immigration system’s sponsored route to enable them to hire, although high costs can often be prohibitive to companies trying to establish themselves in a competitive market. Whilst a number of in demand roles could fit within the UK’s shortage occupation list (which benefit from slightly less onerous government fees and salary requirements), it’s the unsponsored pathways that could be explored as part of recruitment pipelines, often resulting in moves that are quicker, easier and cheaper to manage, as they are specifically designed to attract talented, skilled workers. 

Youth Mobility

The UK’s Youth Mobility visa has recently seen positive enhancements, and from January 2024 will enable a longer duration of stay (shifting from two to three years) for nationals of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The eligible age range will be widened from 30 to 35 for those applicants. For the first time, applicants from Andorra and potentially Uruguay will join the Youth Mobility category, seeing the list of eligible nationalities continue to grow. The similar India Young Professionals Scheme will also see its ballot re-open in 2024.

High Potential

The High Potential Individual visa route (also unsponsored) allows individuals who have graduated from an eligible non-UK university in the past five years to work in the UK on an employed or self-employed basis. Successful applicants will be issued with a two-year work visa, or three years for those that hold a Ph.D. and can then switch into longer-term employment categories where eligibility requirements are met.

Graduate

Successful applications under the Graduate route – which enables people to work in the UK for at least two years after graduating from a UK institution – have continued to grow, giving a pathway to remain in the UK following graduation.

The route is another example of an unsponsored route, meaning the individual does not need a job offer to apply for the visa. The individual can work, switch jobs and develop their career without the need for sponsorship. Processing times for the routes mentioned above are typically in the three-week range, however, priority services may be available for an additional cost.

European Settlement Scheme (EUSS)

Since September 2023 holders of pre-settled status under the EUSS will automatically have that status extended by two years if they have not already converted to settled status. The status was previously considered to not be extendable, so the expansion is positive news for those currently in the UK under the EUSS. 

From 2024, pre-settled status holders who are eligible for settled status may have their status switched automatically where authorities have access to validate their eligibility with government-held information (such as via HMRC). A proactive application is not mandatory, although the scheme does remain open for applications to convert pre-settle status to settled status now and does not attract an application fee.

Global Talent

The Global Talent visa (formerly Tier 1 Exceptional Talent) is a flexible UK visa route aimed at individuals who can show that they have exceptional talent or promise multiple fields including science and engineering.  All applicants must obtain endorsement from one of six approved endorsing bodies recognised by the Home Office, so although the process is lengthy compared to others above, the route is specifically designed to attract leading STEM talent to the areas most in need in the UK.

While the UK’s immigration system is fair, objective and relatively quick for business, the sponsored system often has a high price tag that is unattractive for growing, ambitious sectors such as the UK’s space industry.

Alongside some of the routes, the government can continue to look at improvements and flexibility within the immigration system to ensure that employers continue to invest in the UK market and are not unduly detracted.

Of course, there are frequent changes to the UK immigration system so it’s important for companies to keep abreast of developments as they settle on their optimum solution and grow their space business – doing their bit to turn ‘Global Britain’ into ‘Galactic Britain’.

Edinburgh-based Kelly Hardman is a solicitor (senior manager) with Fragomen, the world’s leading provider of immigration services. She will be attending the 2023 UK Space Conference in Belfast (November 21-23). Kelly is responsible for co-ordinating and managing Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) immigration programmes on behalf of some of Fragomen’s largest clients.

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