DIGITAL technology firms must openly address Brexit and its impact on the retention of staff who are EU nationals and who are worried about their ability to continue working in the UK, according to the sector’s trade body.

In a briefing paper, ScotlandIS says the sector, which employs more than 91,000 people and contributes £5 billion annually in Gross Value Added (GVA), is already facing a skills shortage, and uncertainty over Brexit poses a serious threat for firms of all sizes who rely on skilled EU nationals who are in high demand in the global talent market.

The briefing, written in partnership with solicitors at Brodies LLP, focusses on the rights of non-UK EU nationals and recommends steps that firms can take to support employees who want to protect their residency rights after Britain leaves the EU.

Three-quarters of ScotlandIS members, surveyed after the 2016 referendum, said Brexit would have a negative or very negative impact on their access to skilled staff. Scotland’s software and IT businesses alone employed 4000 non-UK EU nationals in 2015 — 11.5 per cent of employees.

Svea Miesch, research and policy manager at ScotlandIS, said: “Understandably the future status and rights of EU nationals living and working in the UK is a subject of particular importance and concern for our members.

“Many of Scotland’s digital technologies companies employ staff from other EU countries but that is not the only issue. We have companies that are owned by non-UK EU nationals, and EU students studying at Scottish universities are an important source of future talent for our industry.

“It’s important to note that nothing will change until at least March 2019 when the UK leaves the EU. Until then, the UK has to guarantee freedom of movement for citizens of other EU countries. In the meantime, employers can take a number of practical steps to try and retain their staff from EU countries beyond Brexit.”

Lynne Marr, an employment law specialist and partner at Brodies — a member firm of ScotlandIS — recommended starting with an overview of the immigration status of all employees.

“No immigration procedures have been necessary for most EU nationals so far and that means many employers do not have this information to hand,” she said.

“Employers will need this information to assess the potential impact on their business if non-UK EU nationals amongst their staff leave the country post-Brexit or if additional immigration controls make them more difficult to employ in the future.

“Some employers are already going further and offering staff access to an immigration expert for face-to-face session to discuss their specific circumstances or even financial support, such as staff loans, for those seeking more comprehensive legal advice. These steps can provide reassurance to staff who are unsettled by the current uncertainty about the future deal between the UK and EU.”

She added: “There are plans for the UK Government to bring forward an Immigration Bill setting out a framework for a new immigration system. Different options are being discussed and it is possible that a whole new system for EU and non-EU citizens could be designed.”

ScotlandIS is in the process of developing proposals for a future immigration system that would serve the needs of Scotland’s digital technology firms and allow businesses to continue to thrive.

Miesch added: “We are keen to hear from our members and others in the business community with suggestions and experiences of hiring and retaining international talent in Scotland’s digital economy.”