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To aid social mobility and diversity, the future of work must be remote

Saeed Atcha
October 19, 2021

The future of upskilling remotely has a real opportunity to bring diversity and social mobility into the UK's economy. This in turn could be the key to advancing the UK's position as a major tech hub for future generations, writes Saeed Atcha.

The pandemic ushered in a remote work revolution. As offices across the country emptied, remote and hybrid working brought a fundamental shift in the relationship between employers and employees. And while some companies are beginning to consider a return to the office, many bosses have embraced a more flexible approach to work. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that remote and hybrid working is not only beneficial for existing employees but for a new generation of school leavers and university graduates who, in a challenging economic climate, need all the help they can get.

With job vacancies surging and youth unemployment still at 12.9 per cent, we are seeing a systemic failure to connect the young people looking for work with the businesses that need talent. Meanwhile, this year's A-level results show that the gap between private and state school A-level grades has grown to its widest in the modern era and that the North-South divide in A level results has also widened.

As someone with experience of growing up in local authority care in Bolton, I have a lifelong personal and professional investment in dismantling the unnecessary obstacles that young people face in the UK. That's why I became a trustee of Generation UK: to empower young people to overcome their barriers to employment and build thriving, sustainable careers. One of the major obstacles for young school leavers and graduates from lower earning families has been the high cost of living in the areas of the UK that traditionally have the highest job opportunities.

There are latent talent pools that have been separated from new job opportunities for primarily geographic reasons. The UK tech sector is growing but the associated jobs remain heavily concentrated in a specific set of tech hubs including London, Manchester, Bristol, Leeds, and Birmingham. To date, the vast majority of people who have built careers in the tech sector have either previously lived in one of the UK's tech hubs or had the means to relocate there. That immediately rules out the majority of young people today across the rest of the country who are just as capable and eager to work in the tech sector. And it is purely because they either live outside these areas or cannot afford to relocate to them, that they are separated from those opportunities.

For the technology industry and the UK's digital economy, that creates two major challenges: fast-growth tech companies are still struggling to find the talent they need, impeded by these geographic barriers. Secondly, diversity in tech remains low partly as a function of relatively narrow recruiting. On the other side of the equation, for thousands of young people it means that meaningful employment that maximises ability and potential remains out of reach.

Remote and hybrid working could be a real solution to these twin challenges. Born out of necessity, a flexible, hybrid approach to work is here to stay with most tech companies set to retain a level of home working. The flexibility this gives job candidates about where they live has the potential to break down socioeconomic barriers that candidates from a range of diverse backgrounds face when they try to enter the tech sector.

As well as empowering existing employees, remote and hybrid work has also widened opportunities for young people by removing the need to relocate for work. And with that it brings a new opportunity to increase the diversity and social mobility of the UK's economy.

Remote and hybrid working would also solve a longstanding challenge for employers. Namely the ability to source tech talent and access a rich pool of highly skilled, motivated employees. Enter a generation of young people familiar with the latest tech just waiting to start their careers and make their mark on the world.

If employers can figure out a hybrid model where they can train young people in digital skills with a degree of in-person time – while tapping into all the benefits of remote working – we will be able to provide and grow that talent pool that employers so sorely need. But without the digital skills that qualify them for vacancies in forward-looking industries, such as tech, young people won't be able to contribute to the digital economy and play their part in the UK's future industries. Fortunately, there already exist many boot camps that are designed to develop the skills that employers are asking for. And many are demonstrating high levels of success in placing young people in jobs. Often these boot camps can be attended remotely; they're free, and all the tech hardware is provided.

But while this is all possible, the hard fact is that we have a long way to go. The Government's social mobility barometer shows that the pandemic has unquestionably exacerbated existing inequalities. That's why we must leverage boot camps and remote working as part of the toolkit to unlick the opportunity. It should not be a question of 'if' but 'when'. Social mobility must be a core part of our mission to build back better. Because more diverse hiring practices will not only benefit those hired, but also add value to businesses, especially in sectors where diversity has been lacking, such as the tech industry.

The road beyond the pandemic is uncertain, but one thing is clear: if we don't act now, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds will be hit harder and we will miss a huge opportunity to retrain and upskill the next generation while levelling up the UK economy. An investment in remote working and learning could make a significant difference to addressing the UK's skills gaps and creating a generational rise in social mobility. If we seize this moment, we could take a major step towards addressing inequality and advancing the UK's position as a tech leader for many years to come.

Saeed Atcha MBE DL is the founding chief executive of Youth Leads UK, a charity he established aged 15, Social Mobility Commissioner for the UK government, and a Trustee of Generation UK.
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