UK employers are looking overseas to plug the skills gap

Data from Google Trends shows the number of people searching for a skilled worker visa in the UK has more than doubled in just 12 months.

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Helena Young

The number of people in the UK searching to recruit overseas talent has been steadily increasing over the past year, as the widening skills gap continues to make life difficult for hiring managers.

Figures from Google Trends show that searches for ‘skilled worker visas’, the type of visa required for employers to recruit non-UK resident workers for highly-skilled roles, grew by 156% between January 2022 and 2023.

Visa challenges triggered by Brexit, coupled with the ‘Great Resignation’ (an ongoing trend of mass employee quitting), have resulted in a poor crop of talent for hiring managers across every sector.

Towards the end of 2022, a record 78% of employers said they were struggling to appoint new staff, according to the ManpowerGroup Employment Outlook Survey.

As a result, many organisations are looking further afield to recruit for sought-after skillsets such as HGV drivers and healthcare professionals.

Google Trends graph showing increase in searches for Skilled Worker visas from January 1 2022 to January 1 2023

Google Trends chart showing increase in searches for Skilled Worker visas from 01/01/22 to 01/02/23. Data source: Google Trends (

What’s behind the UK skills gap?

Talent shortages – particularly for digital and tech roles – have plagued UK businesses for over a decade. However, the past few years have seen a rapid surge in the number of managers claiming to be unable to find a suitable hire for a role.

Brexit is partly responsible. Net migration has suffered under EU visa restrictions, lowering the number of foreign workers available for employment. But a number of other factors are also worsening the issue. 

Figures from the Office for National Statistics also show that older people are leaving the workforce earlier. In April to June 2022 there were 3.6 million people aged 50 to 64 economically inactive, an increase of 1.3 percentage points in the past year.

Meanwhile, younger people are going onto university and prolonging their entry into the workforce. Government statistics show that the progression rate into higher education by age 19 has increased from 43.1% to 44.4% in 2020/21.

Rapid technological advancement post-COVID has also helped to widen the gap between the digital roles being advertised, and the current workforce’s abilities. 

Last week, the startup network Tech Nation announced it will close in March after its government funding was pulled. Its Global Talent visa scheme was instrumental in bringing international tech talent to the UK, raising questions about whether this will worsen the digital skills gap.

Why fixing the skills gap will be key to SME survival in 2023

The skills gap poses a real threat to growth for today’s SMEs. The resulting hiring crisis has created major staffing issues for firms at a time when they are already being heckled by rising energy costs, shrinking consumer spending, and insufficient government aid.

According to new research from DocuSign, 74% of UK firms don’t feel ready for the future. Of those surveyed, 1 in 5 cited the skills gap as their biggest blocker to progress in 2023.

Now, the Google Trends data suggests businesses are progressively taking matters into their own hands in an attempt to avoid the detrimental effects of making the wrong hire.

How do employers hire from abroad?

The Skilled Worker visa is the easiest way for an employer to sponsor a new job hire for long-term employment. With this visa, any candidate who meets the requirements for the UK’s points-based immigration system can work in the UK.

They can stay for up to five years before applying for indefinite leave to remain. Right to Work checks should be carried out during this period to ensure the employee is still legally permitted to work in the UK.

Startups can also take advantage of the Scale-up Worker visa. This is a temporary licence that covers volunteering and job-shadowing, and is specifically designed for people coming to work for a fast-growing UK business.

Employers applying for a sponsor licences will need to pay an upfront fee of £364 for the first 12 months, plus £182 for each additional six months. You’ll get a full refund if the worker’s visa application is refused or withdrawn. Learn more on the government website.

Overseas hiring: tips for startups

Sourcing employees from overseas is a more complicated hiring strategy than recruiting locally. That’s why it’s an important detail to get right when you’re just beginning to build your team.

Our business plan template has more information on how to factor staffing costs – such as visa fees – into an early-stage cash forecast.

How else can employers fix the skills gap?

While the global talent pool is certainly a lucrative source to tap into, the above fees show it is expensive to sponsor a foreign worker. Investing in their existing workforce will help companies to reduce labour costs through avoiding recruitment and onboarding fees.

1. Digital upskilling

This can be a more affordable talent-finding method than hiring from abroad. It involves investing in learning and development programs to help employees ramp up their expertise.

Because employers have complete control over the training, digital upskilling can be bespoke to the exact skills and qualifications your workforce requires. Plus, investing in an individual’s professional growth will make succession planning easier.

2. Apprenticeship schemes

Whilst more of a long-term solution, apprenticeship schemes are a cost-efficient way to invest in the future of the business, and would stop hiring managers needing to look far away from home for their newest recruit.

A survey of 1,000 small businesses, carried out by previous Startups 100 winner Multiverse, found that 35% plan to take on an apprentice in 2023. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of SMEs see apprenticeships as a positive way of hiring talent from more diverse backgrounds.

3. Outsourcing to freelancers

If you’re hiring for specialist tech roles like software engineers, another option is to tap into the global freelancer network to hire short-term project team members who can work from abroad, avoiding the need for expensive visas.

Lots of remote hiring startups are rising through the business ranks to help firms access a global freelancer workforce. Like Deazy, a specialist software company that featured in our Startups 100 Index earlier this year.

4. Modify your recruitment to target over 50s

The ONS data shows there are currently 3.6 million people aged between 50 and 64 who are “economically inactive” in the UK.

Tap into this resource by reading our guide to how to hire over 50s as an easy way to increase the number of high-calibre applicants for available roles.

Get more recruitment top tips and tricks, and learn how to plug the skills gap in your own workforce, in our expert hiring guides.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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