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Digital roles are the highest paid and the most in-demand freelance jobs hired by SMEs

Over the past 20 years, the number of self-employed people in the UK, including freelancers, has grown by 14%. But how can businesses better understand this growing space?

A new study by Iwoca, a small business lender, has surveyed 500 UK SMEs to reveal how many businesses are hiring freelancers, and examined the freelancer website Upwork to identify the roles with the highest demand. The study also analysed the costings of different roles to shed light on how much businesses can expect to spend when hiring for different job roles and where they can encounter the most competition when hiring freelancers.

The work skill with the highest demand is developers

The research revealed that the job with the highest demand was developers. There were 243 job openings advertised on Upwork during May 2022 for this skill. This is a stark comparison to the role with the least demand - data analysts - which only had 5 roles advertised at the time.

When there is high demand for a certain skill or job role, businesses should try to offer the market rate (for developers this is £51.82 per hour) or above- this will ensure that they stand out from competition meaning their chances of securing the best talent are increased.

Businesses should remember, however, that the demand for certain freelance skills can fluctuate, due to the needs of a business at that time. Developers, for example, are needed periodically and usually at the start of a project, whereas data analysts are often required for a longer period of time when quarterly reports are due.

Whilst iwoca’s research gives us an insight into the demand of certain roles, it doesn’t tell the whole story. To understand more about the demand for freelancers, iwoca also surveyed small business owners on the skills they were most likely to hire for.

The freelance roles most likely to be hired for by SMEs were predominantly digital

According to iwoca’s survey, web designers are the most likely role hired for by small businesses, with around a fifth of UK small business owners (22%) likely to hire a web design freelancer. This was followed by Accountants (20%), Social Media Marketers (15%) and Graphic Designers (12%).


The study also looked at the search volume for these different skills to guage where the biggest demand sits. When looking into this, iwoca found that graphic designers are the most searched for freelance roles, with nearly 2000 searches made on average per month in the UK. This shows that they not only are businesses likely to hire a freelancer with this skill but they are also highly sought after. This makes graphic design a very attractive avenue for those looking to begin their freelance career. In comparison, the lowest searched for freelance role was ‘admin’, which received just 70 searches per month in the UK.

SEM specialists are the highest paid freelancers

After analysing the hourly rates of freelancer roles, iwoca reports that SEM, search engine marketing specialists, are the highest paid of any role. Search Engine Marketing Specialists differ from SEO (Search Engine Optimization) specialists in that they focus on paid advertising rather than organic. On average, the hourly rate for SEM specialists at the time of research was £58.76, which is astonishing when compared to their average hourly rate in a full-time employed job- £15.17 per hour.

Per year, a search engine marketing specialist in a full time role earns around £31,340 in comparison to potential earnings of around £112,827 as a freelancer. iwoca notes that on this basis if a small business owner is looking to hire a SEM specialist over a long term basis, it is likely more financially viable to hire a salaried full-time role.


65% of small business owners stated they were likely to hire a freelancer to help grow their business:

To understand whether businesses are actually hiring freelancers, iwoca surveyed small business owners in the UK. The survey revealed that almost half of the SME’s have already hired a freelancer for at least one role in the past- 47%. Further, 65% of respondents claim they are likely to use a freelancer in the future to help grow their business. But can businesses benefit from freelancers?

To shed light on how SMEs can effectively make use of the freelance space and how they benefit businesses, iwoca spoke to Alex Mastin, CEO and founder of Home Grounds, who says:

“Freelancers can allow companies to focus on more important aspects of the business. It’s an excellent way to minimise disruptions when your team or company is experiencing change or an elevated workload. It means my team can focus on important tasks while delegating those that require less oversight to an outside source.”

The research makes clear that a freelance career, particularly a digital career, is a maintainable lifestyle and great career path to take. Digital roles are the highest in demand and the highest paid giving flexibility in career choice for those in the digital space. Small businesses are clear on their intention to hire freelancers, on the basis that they believe it will help them to grow their business. Ultimately, SME’s and freelancers can grow a harmonious relationship in helping the other to succeed.

You can view the full study here.

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