A key feature of the labour market over the past 30 years
has been the growth of "flexible contract" employment.
But it is not only a question of numbers: the nature of
this type of employment has changed. To understand the nature of these
changes, and to look into the future, Flexibility spoke to Iain
Herbertson, Managing Director of Manpower PLC.
The main drivers behind the growth of the flexible and
contract workforce over the past few decades, according to Iain, are
linked to increasing competition: "As competition has intensified,
organisations have sought ways of improving market responsiveness, driving
down costs and maintaining quality. Staff costs have been an obvious
target. But it's not just a question of costs: to be responsive
organisations want people to be instantly capable. They want someone who
is instantly capable and more productive. So they look to outsourcing, and
to flexible staffing where people come in ready trained. So their staff
resource can be "flexed" up and down, more or less to match
output with the resources required."
This has meant a change in the services provided by
flexible staffing organisations. Traditional flexible staffing provides
temporary help. But the market has become more sophisticated. Manpower
started by supplying individuals to meet customer demand. This progressed
to supplying teams of people, then to providing managed services. These
days Manpower is often measured by output - for example with
engineering service it runs, a cost per repair is the basis of payment.
Manpower established its first contact centre in Thurso, in the
far north of Scotland, back in 1993. Originally it was set up in
conjunction with BT to demonstrate distance working. The initial service
was to provide an internal technical helpdesk for BT employees working in
and around the London. It demonstrated that customer service could be
carried out anywhere, providing the staff were properly trained and had
the right technology.
Thurso has developed beyond this now. It started with 23
staff (of whom 17 remain), and now has 560. It also has a wider range of
customers and services - e.g. providing an out-of-hours service for
Cellnet, supplying graphics services to various customers and providing password
security and a range of other technical services.
This kind of operation illustrates how outsourcing is a
powerful tool for transferring work into remote or less favoured areas,
and developing skills in the local workforce.
The role of new technologies
The role of new technologies in providing managed services
is seen in the evolution of "call centres" into "contact
centres", with the Internet adding a new dimension to services which
use the telecommunications network.
But technology also plays a role in new service offerings.
"This new role," explains Iain, " is to be the resource
manager, managing the supply chain for an organisation. Having started
with a master vendor/managing agency type of approach, what we've done is
package the product so we can supply a company with a resourcing centre.
We use an end-to-end supply management technology, starting with
web-enabled order management software, working through managing
assignments, with training and assessment, time-keeping, invoicing and
payment all carried out online."
This service is currently being implemented at
Hertfordshire County Council. According to Iain the end-to-end software
cuts the costs of supporting contracts by about 30%. It does this not just
by eliminating paper processes, but also by cutting the management time
"In Hertfordshire," explains Iain, "Someone
calculated that from the time someone applied for a job to the time they
are taken on, some 27 people can be involved in the process. With new
technology underpinning the process, the whole process becomes more
The key attractions of the "Resourcing Centre
product", then, are that it:
removes risk for the client
makes the labour market within the organisation more
reduces advertising spend
speeds up recruitment
frees up management for other tasks.
Looking to the future
What are the greatest challenges for companies over the
next few years? And how can a flexible approach to the labour market help?
Beyond the "competitive edge" factor already
outlined, Iain identifies 3 other key factors:
Across Europe the demand for labour is rising - yet
demographically the numbers of people of traditional working age are
shrinking. The consequence will be increasing labour shortages of the type
already seen in certain key skill areas but extending even into low skill
The trend of legislation is to place an increasing
burden on employers as Governments seek to deliver policy and tax/benefit
distribution through the private business sector.
Finally the issues of work life balance and corporate
social responsibility are gaining prominence and beginning to move from
political concepts to real social issues that are influencing the
attitudes of individuals towards employment.
"Our industry and the flexibility it delivers has a
significant contribution to dealing with these challenges," says
Iain. "As we need to meet shortages by drawing into the workforce
older people, people with poor qualifications and little employment
experience, lone parents and people facing barriers like disability, drug
or alcohol abuse or social deprivation, Manpower is ideally placed to
provide the bridge."
"This means access to work, training and support,
developed through our work on New Deal and through our joint venture
company, Working Links. Increasing legislative burdens make managing
employment and avoiding related employment liabilities a specialist
activity and the trend towards HR outsourcing is a response to this.
Organisations like Manpower are at the forefront of this
"Finally, as people want to balance and flex work and
leisure/home more and more they need an intermediary who can help give
them greater control and access to variety in work yet also keep their
skills and experience relevant to the changing jobs market. Once again we
can - and already do - deliver that intermediary service."
The "private / public" issue
A hot topic in the UK at the moment - especially during
the political conference season - is the relationship between public
services and the private sector.
The government seems committed to extending private sector
involvement: Trades Unions seem determined to deliver a broadside to these
For Iain, the "private versus public" argument
has tended to be too superficial. "It's trying to force a division
where potentially there's unity". Manpower has been working for some
time in delivering the "New Deal" and in managing programmes in
the government's Employment Action Zones.
"Government and trades unions are searching for a
solution to engaging the private sector in improving public services that
does not threaten public service values, undermine public service jobs or
run the risk of the private sector making excessive profits out of
Government investment in public services. The Working
Links model is a unique and highly innovative answer. It involves
partnership and joint delivery, it involves sharing risk and reward and it
reinvests profit into the communities that it serves.
"So far it's helped over 8,000 people into work - and
these are people who have been out of work for at least a year."
So the picture that is painted is of a future for flexible
staffing that has the potential to make the most of new technologies, to
continue to support work-life balance options, and to help spread
employment into disadvantaged areas, and opportunities for work to
To achieve this, however, much also depends on client
organisations, in both the public and private sectors, having the vision
and commitment to move in the same direction. The future is flexible -
and, it seems, the future is about partnership.