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'Free agents' may just win the race

Published on Friday, 20 Dec 2013
Illustration: iStockphoto
Carl Camden
Teresa Carroll

According to Carl Camden, president and chief executive of recruitment firm Kelly Services, a new employment model is fast taking shape, based on the “free agent” concept and reflective of shifting economic realities. Overall, it will mean more independent contractors taking on an increasing number of temporary and project roles.

Employers will have to rethink their approach to hiring, organisational structure and strategic planning. And workers will have to balance the advantages of greater flexibility and freedom to control their own careers with the removal of the “safety net” provided by a full-time role.

Employers will have to rethink their approach to hiring, organisational structure and strategic planning. And workers will have to balance the advantages of greater flexibility and freedom to control their own careers with the removal of the “safety net” provided by a full-time role.

“We created something called the social contract, where companies told workers we will train and keep you – with the government using employers to deliver social benefits and collect taxes – but all of that has changed in the last 10 years,” says US-based Camden.

“We are going back to the original world of work after the ‘aberration’ of industrialisation and the production line. If you look at [US political] campaign speeches before the Second World War, it is all about craftsmen, tradesmen, small shop owners. In general, people did not work for an employer for life – that was seen as a form of servitude – but essentially for themselves,” says US-based Camden.

From the 1950s, though, came the rise of the “faceless minion” and the corporate bureaucrat in the more developed economies. Until, that is, the more recent changes inspired by a combination of technology, financial crisis, demographics and evolving aspirations, which have seen the revival of “free agent” ideals and attitudes.

At present, the fastest growing segment of free agents is in high-skilled, high-demand groups such as lawyers, accountants, scientists, engineers, programmers, and substitute teachers. But there is also burgeoning interest among “under-recruited” groups such as women, retirees, at-home workers, and individuals who simply want more say over when and where they work.

“People who voluntarily choose this work style are better educated and more employable than the general population, and they understand that job security is an oxymoron,” says Camden, whose firm helps a community of some 700,000 free agents find job placements. “Organisations must adapt to offer the kinds of opportunities and engagements these critically-skilled workers demand.”

Teresa Carroll, general manager of Kelly’s outsourcing and consulting group and senior vice-president of its Centers of Excellence, estimates that free agents already account for about 45 per cent of the workforce in the US. The number there is expected to keep climbing, with other parts of the world also catching up as the traditional types of “good job” become less available and less the norm.

“Some may find the free agent way of work distasteful or may not be willing to take a risk, especially in countries where health care is more dependent on the employer,” Camden says.

“In reality, though, job life cycles are declining – the average is now three-and-a-half years – so why would [an employer] pay someone to do something not needed or which they are not very good at? Neither side will win or lose. You have to see it in terms of society and the rise of the new social contract,” he adds. 

In Asia, Carroll notes that “talent supply chain management” is even more challenging. “Aside from the war for talent, the regulations and the costs, there’s a unique psychographic in Asia,” she says. “In this region, full-time employees are now free agents – loyalty is pretty much dead.”

Carroll sees a bright Asian future for recruitment process outsourcing and management service provision, which are now entrenched in the West. “The challenge for organisations is to pull together all the talent sources. This is crucial as big companies spend US$2 billion to US$3 billion to tap various talent sources,” she says.

Another trend that could take root in Asia is “online staffing”, where internet-based firms “collate” all freelancers and offer their services to subscribers. “This is now a US$1 billion industry and growing,” Carroll says.

 

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