When Caribbean nations began rolling out so-called digital nomad visas last year, the possibility of remote working in the sun, sea and sand of the paradise islands generated headlines worldwide. Fast-acting governments from Barbados, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda and Curaçao provided the perfect getaway for top-level digital talent recently freed from their office confinement and found a novel way to cushion the economic impact of the huge drop in tourism.
These visas don’t come cheap. Applicants for the Barbados Welcome Stamp must earn at least US$50,000 per year, while those hoping to qualify for Antigua and Barbuda’s Nomad Digital Residence Visa have to accept a non-refundable US$1,500 price for a single applicant.
But local outsourcing and technology experts say that these temporary visa initiatives may open the doors for a permanent change to the islands’ tech talent and offer far greater rewards than near-term tourism revenues.
“This first phase is bringing people with wealth and FDI will come out of it. But those individuals also have broad skillsets, and importantly, an open mind. Because they are physically here and exposed to the region’s talent, the seeds of startup ecosystem are being sewn,” says Leslie Lee Fook, Director of AI, Automation and Analytics at INCUS Services, a Caribbean-wide B2B consultancy.
An estimated 40% of US tech roles will be located outside of the country in the next five years
The New Digital Worker Dynamic
The pandemic has accelerated the move to digital and remote work that many industries were slowly making and has fundamentally changed the relationship many skilled employees have with their workplace. This realization that workers do not have to be tethered to their offices means many are considering a move away from their immediate office locale, their country, or even their time zone. Interest in the digital nomad lifestyle, in which skilled tech professionals play a large part, has grown. A recent survey by HR company Remote and Sapio Research found that 71% of employees at US startups said that they would do their job abroad if they were allowed to. Nicky Stevens of Business Development Agency Bermuda told Nearshore Americas that the Work From Bermuda One-Year Residential Certificate, which came into effect on Aug. 1, 2020, has seen a lot of enthusiasm. “As of mid-December, 587 applications have been received and 508 approved. Of the approved applications, 244 are currently enjoying life on the Island,” she said.
Worker appetite for moving abroad is mirrored by the interest that many companies have in nearshoring to overseas markets. The same survey found that 40% of US tech roles will be located outside of the country in the next five years, with higher quality talent and improved staff retention driving this move.
The Caribbean is a region well set to meet this imminent demand for skilled nearshore workers. Strong educational policies turn out an educated labor force with high English-language skills and robust infrastructure means few areas are without the resources necessary to work in the digital economy. According to the World Bank, Barbados’ internet penetration was 81.8% in 2019, while penetration in Trinidad and Tobago stood at 77.3%; favorable numbers compared to nearby competitor markets, and perfectly suitable for arriving digital nomads.
Conventional Innovation: Been There, Done That
For the region to create the bedrock of local service companies able to provide for this uptick in outsource demand, attitudes to creating business require change, says Fook. Nomads can be crucial to this step. “There is no shortage of conventional innovation in the Caribbean. We’ve always been forced to do more with less,” he says. “But there is a gap in digital innovation and many organizations in the Caribbean are very traditional; they want someone sitting at a desk. Exposure to digital innovation and new ways of thinking is what these digital nomads should bring.”
Tracy Hackshaw, an ICT and digital economy specialist who has worked across the private and public sectors in the Caribbean, believes that a lack of soft skills means local businesses struggle to supply the type of nearshore services that foreign clients expect. “There is no absence of general tech skills. The major problem we have is non-technical skills,” he says.
The region’s soft skills deficit was concerning enough for the Inter-American Development Bank to launch the 21st Century Skills Coalition in October 2019. The initiative sought to promote skills and training policies needed for the new digital economy throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. “Although we know that specific technical skills continue to be strongly related to success in the labor market, their importance has been falling in recent decades, while returns to socio-emotional skills such as creativity, critical thinking, flexibility and communication have been increasing,” said Marcelo Cabrol, Manager of the IDB’s Social Sector at the initiative’s launch.
In Trinidad and Tobago, recent coaching and mentoring initiatives have helped instill these soft skills, and post-college ‘finishing schools’ teach students how to construct online helpdesks and generally improve client-facing services. Yet the problem remains.
Hackshaw believes that visa application process fees and paltry tourist spends are not the only way for digital nomads to invest in the country they travel to. Instead, they can help bridge this knowledge gap. “Why not ask these digital nomads to do something else?” he asks. “This could be investing into the local sector they’re working in. And this investment isn’t necessarily through capital or monetary infusions but through coaching, mentoring and other knowledge-transfer activities,” Hackshaw suggests.
Multiple Waves are Likely
One of the main reasons for professionals fleeing metropolises during the pandemic is to seek an improved work-life balance. The city of San Francisco, Silicon Valley’s major urban hub, has seen a minimum of 72,000 households moving out and a plunge in demand on local services over the past 12 months, according to local news outlet Hoodline.
Fook believes that the Caribbean will benefit from the digital professionals’ search for a better lifestyle and potentially help correct the brain drain the region has always suffered from. The initial wave of decision-makers will be followed by other skilled workers who will deepen technical knowledge and bring specialty expertise to help the seeds of the startup ecosystem sprout and grow, he suggests. “This first phase will attract influential people who will fall in love with the Caribbean – everyone always does. They will start to build eco-systems around themselves. The second wave will bring more experienced types from places like Silicon Valley. They’ll help advance the knowledge transfer,” Fook predicts. “Over the next two years, we aim to train over 180,000 people in data analytics. I want the Caribbean to be the India of analytics. We don’t only want people to come here for the white sand and blue oceans, but to use the creativity we have.”
For now, Hackshaw, believes that the nations offering the nomad visas must consider the future each wants for itself and apply the visa requirements accordingly to attract the right people. This way, the pitfalls of poor communication and lack of experience that the Indian outsourcing model creates can be avoided. “Throwing out a wide net means you land a lot of trash,” he says. “Instead, each country should throw out a fishing line. They should target individuals that possess the skills the country lacks and who have knowledge of what is happening in the labor market of that country.”
(This is the first Nearshore Americas report written by newly placed Managing Editor Peter Appleby. Get to know Peter, drop him a note at: Peter@Nextcoastmedia.com)
I kickstarted the Barbados Welcome Stamp with a memo I was asked to write to Cabinet in April 2020 by a member of the Barbados Jobs and Investment Council. He had read my blog which suggested such a visa.
My startup is also working to connect the Welcome Stampers with tech and remote working skills to Barbadians who need to acquire such skills. If anyone wants to collaborate with us in these efforts please do get in contact.