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The UK digital skills gap: Talent is distributed, opportunity should be too

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Kirill Wright)

It is widely recognized that there is a real need for more specialists within the digital and technology industries in the UK. Just last year, The Open University published their ‘Bridging the Digital Divide’ research report, which highlighted the extent of the growing problem and its impact on UK companies, with nine in 10 organizations admitting to having a shortage of digital skills within their workforce, which they believe is already having a significant negative impact on productivity, efficiency and competitiveness.

What’s more, the Institution of Engineering and Technology recently published its latest ‘Skills and Demand in Industry report’, which too revealed that more than half of UK engineering and technology companies believe a shortage of engineers poses a direct threat to their business, roughly equating to a shortfall of around 59,000 new engineering graduates and technicians a year.

Many would argue the solution to this is straightforward. Simply upskill workers across the UK to plug the gap, and it’s a win win situation for all. And we know the UK government is taking steps to address the issue; in 2019, the government announced they would invest £170m in 12 institutes of technology to strengthen the provision of technical education in England. There have been recent commitments to supporting ‘grassroots’ tech initiatives through the ‘Road to Recovery’ plan, and digital secretary Oliver Dowden is due to unveil a new set of ambitions for the tech sector this autumn.

These investments mark a vital step in the right direction to overcome the talent shortage problem, but long-term plans do not automatically fix short-term problems. What do those businesses with an immediate need for technology specialists do in the short term? How can businesses that need talent right now navigate this ongoing challenge? 

The answer is staring us right in the face.

If businesses were to widen the pool of talent from which they could hire from, candidates would inevitably multiply. And, if businesses had access to a wider pool of talent than ever before, the digital skills gap would inevitably shrink.

However, I don’t think it’s unfair to state most businesses tend to think restrictively. They assume they can only employ local professionals who are willing to commute daily into the office, but that places huge restrictions on those who can apply for the roles. Of course, that made sense 20 years ago, when employees lacked the necessary tools to work remotely and effectively, but the situation has changed. Remote work has become the norm for top digital talent, and the recent pandemic has made it clear that many traditional office roles work just as well outside of traditional office settings.

Rather than turn away from the progress they have made, businesses should use this opportunity to consider long-term remote work strategies, and embrace the opportunities of a wider, geographically diverse talent pool.

Within the digital and technology industries, most workers can complete their projects using only a computer or laptop. For those careers where this is the case – where there is no compelling reason to work in a physical shared space and no benefit to be received from commuting into an office everyday – why not explore talent elsewhere? We now have the tools and services that empower businesses to break free from archaic restrictions that limit employment to local candidates.

Consider hiring according to time zone, for example, instead of geographical region, and the pool of talent increases drastically. Businesses in London could consider applicants from outside of the M25, from the Midlands, the North, or even Scotland.  Even Austria, Sweden, France, Spain, Norway, and large parts of Africa etc., all with very similar time zones and therefore similar working hours. Stockholm, for example, is considered to be the second-largest tech hub in the world, according to Bloomberg, and Cape Town has been named as the tech hub of the African continent.  Why wouldn’t businesses in the UK want to access that kind of talent?

Global approach to employment

By exploring non-local options, businesses can access the global talent they need to overcome the skills shortage facing the UK. Understandably, some businesses remain hesitant to embrace the remote work revolution; hiring remote workers has only recently emerged as a realistic option. Issues of complying with local laws and navigating local employment markets can create a sense of fear and continue to prevent companies from taking advantage of all remote work has to offer.


Fortunately, businesses looking to access top talent in other countries now have effective and affordable options to hire the best talent quickly and in full compliance with local laws. For example, Remote can take care of global payroll, benefits, taxes, and compliance for businesses looking to employ overseas. Zoom rose to the challenge of the pandemic to become the world’s favorite borderless video conferencing tool. Wire makes secure remote collaboration easy, while Circleloop offers a Wi-Fi alternative to the traditional office phone. These are just a few examples of technology that has revolutionized the way we work in recent months and years. Technology has made it easier than ever before to collaborate and work from anywhere. 

To compete on a global stage, employers must break free from old limitations and seek the best candidates regardless of physical location.

American entrepreneur Leila Janah once said, ‘Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not’, but that no longer has to be true. Remote work makes the distribution of opportunity possible, and with access to top talent more important than ever before, UK businesses would do well to look beyond a 15 mile radius for the best candidates.

By taking a more global approach to employment, we could not only improve opportunities for talented people across the world, but also allow technology companies to overcome the skills challenges the industry is facing today and compete more effectively on a global stage.

Job van der Voort, Co-founder and CEO, Remote (opens in new tab)

Job van der Voort is the CEO and co-founder of Remote, which handles payroll, benefits, taxes, and compliance for international teams.