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The Future of Flexible Staffing

Flexibility interviews Iain Herbertson, MD of Manpower PLC

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 the field 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 involved. 

"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 effective".

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 flexible

  • 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:

  1. 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 employment areas. 

  2. 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. 

  3. 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 specialisation."

"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 plans.

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 disadvantaged groups. 

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.

Iain Herbertson, MD of Manpower PLC

Manpower employs over 100,000 people each year, through a network of over 300 UK offices. Globally, it employs some 2.7 million people. 

These figures include the temporary workers on their books. Rather than simply placing 'temps' into jobs, Manpower invests in people by permanently employing them as Manpower staff and then placing them into the job assignments with its clients. So Manpower accepts full employer liability and responsibility for benefits such as holiday and sick pay, enabling companies to focus on their core business and minimise HR costs.

For further information on Manpower, see their website at, or



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