Tag Archive | "recruitment agencies"

Up, up and away: contracting jobs go through the roof

When you set yourself up as a specialist contractor accountant, it pays to keep tabs on the market. Of course there are all the changes in tax law to consider. But we’re talking here of another beast: the jobs market for contractors.

It’s not as cut and dried as you’d expect. On the one hand, we see the government taking huge steps towards cleansing umbrella and intermediary practises.

How far they’ll go with offshore trusts remains to be seen. Many politicians owe their own fortunes to such mechanisms, so they’re not going to shoot themselves in the foot.

On the other, we keep a track on the UK self-employed and agency jobs market. And it’s this area that helps define demand for our services.

It’s not always good news. There are times when the outlook is downright bleak. When Scotland went to the polls for their independence referendum, for instance, the outcome was uncertain for a long time.

Even more unclear was the how a devolved Scotland would treat English contractors heading up north to earn their crust in the lucrative oil and gas industry.

But there are good times, too, when we see the wind change and start blowing in our direction. After reading this week’s headlines, I can feel the breeze chafing my cheeks already. Let’s explain.

What happens in the managed service or umbrella market is beyond our catch net, if you like. Those practises deal with accounts in-house and use many different mechanisms to save tax for contractors.

But how they’re performing – and what’s guiding their hands – that can be a barometer for our sector.

And talking of ‘our sector’, these two polls from official bodies representing staffing agencies this week are of particular interest:

Demand for interim managers increases | IMA

First off, IMA‘s new Ipsos MORI poll has only good news from the interim management sector.

Demand for temporary specialist staff is increasing. The private sector is also rediscovering its confidence in and appetite for hiring on an ad hoc basis.

Here’s a snapshot of those highlights (based on Q4 2014 figures):

  • average number of enquiries: up 23% (year on year);
  • new assignments: up 5% (year on year);
  • billable days: up 12% (Q3-to-Q4 2014);
  • finance industry accounts for almost 4-in-10 private sector assignments (39%);
  • private sector (in total) accountable for two thirds of all completed assignments compared to just 51% in Q3, 2014.

The full article has a more in-depth overview.

Professional hiring up 16% | APSCo

Then, APSCo report on the increment of both permanent and contract vacancies on its members’ books. Citing ONS employment figures, up by more than 200k in the rolling quarter to March, as an indicative value, APSCo confirms the IMA data.

June 2015 Week 1 - Tag Cloud, what's making the temp staffing news

It’s all good news!

Agencies supplying professional staff have 16% more permanent vacancies across the board than they did a year ago. Contracting vacancies have risen by 3% over the same period. Even better news is that salary has also increased, up by 2.9% year-on-year.

Once again, the finance and accounting sector is quoted as being “particularly strong”. Permanent vacancies here are up 11% alone. For temporary jobs, media and marketing were the outstanding performers. They’re up 9% compared to last year’s figures.

Temporary workforce to contribute £2bn to GDP in 2015(?)

Ann Swain, APSCo CEO, adds her insight to the rise in staffing vacancy figures article on their website.

Her predictions for the ‘professional flexible workforce’ are bold and interesting. She believes that the sector will contribute more than £2bn to GDP for the first time this year.

If we’re feeling the breeze here, the winds of change are blowing a gale across the contracting community. It looks like us, as their accountants, are going to be busy.

If you want to be a part of this force majeure, it’s time to get serious about working for yourself. The change in the way we work is approaching a new dawn; this is one sunrise you don’t want to miss!

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What happens when the world changes?

One of the great appeals of freelancing your way through life is the constant change, working in new places with new people, solving new problems and generally getting away from the mundane grind of the usual nine-to-five employee world. Well, that’s what they always told me. Perhaps I’m getting old (hell, I am getting old) but I fear I’m beginning to disagree…

As the train pulled out of the station this morning at precisely 07:14, I was reflecting on my journey in. I followed the same old silver Mondeo up the hill out of the village. We were overtaken by the same small white van, doing rather more than the posted 40 mph limit. I just knew at the next set of lights that the red Fiesta in the right turn lane was going to go straight on to get ahead of everyone else in the queue (and screech to a halt 50 yards later at the Pelican crossing…). The flash of brake lights for no obvious reason had to be someone encountering the suicidal loon in the black hoodie cycling along with no lights and no awareness of the world around him (with his luck, he really should be buying lottery tickets…).

Hearing the same announcement every morning at 07:03 about penalty fares. Standing on the platform at a point where you just know the carriage door will be right in front of you and the guy in the over-elaborate winter jacket is going to push in so he can get to the coffee counter on the train before anyone else, not that there’s ever much of a queue to make it even faintly worthwhile doing.

And work, while satisfying and frequently challenging, is basically about bringing a range of systems and services from development into business as usual in a totally consistent way. I have to capture the same information for each system, spot the occasional variation from the standard model and make sure the usual suspects know exactly what to do with the new service when it goes live.

Consistency and repeatable processes. That’s how the world works if you don’t want to waste resources reinventing the wheel every time you need to go somewhere.

But what happens when the world changes?

This is something the agencies are going to have to wake up to, probably sooner than they think. Over the last 20 years they have evolved to the point where most of their process is so consistent you don’t actually need to apply intelligence to it. A lot of the time, you don’t even need people, good pattern matching algorithms will do the drudge work. You keep the good guys chasing the jobs but filling them is all about cranking the handle.

But the market – or the IT contracting market, at least – is changing, and changing very quickly. I’m working for a Managed Service Provider at present who can charge their end client less than £200 a day for programming resources. When you consider the margins they make and the overheads they have to cover, that is eye-wateringly cheap. UK-based contractors simply cannot hope to compete at that level.

The implication is that very soon now the requirement is going to shift to supplying genuine expertise: clients will be looking to the contract market only to bring in people who can add specific skills, in either technical, business or delivery arenas. And our current highly commoditised agency supply chain simply won’t be able to cope any more; they will have to start applying intelligence again. Oh dear…

As Henry Wallace said, the only certainty in life is change. But I say the real trick is to notice change is happening.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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Time to change the world of recruitment methinks

You have to laugh, you know. I never cease to be amazed at the number of posts I see about contractors claiming all sorts of problems with, variously, notice periods (don’t need them, as I’ve said before), IR35-safe contracts (fine as long as they represent reality), the AWR (don’t start me on that one again) and the infamous opt out from the Agency Regulations (opt out if you can but it makes little real difference). Plus, of course, the running complaint about the agency’s percentage of the contractor’s rate: except, of course, as ony fule kno they don’t get the percentage, the contractor does.

However there is a common theme to these various complaints. The agency.

We have to be fair to the poor agents themselves though. Increasingly they are run by accountants targeting sales figures and maximising margin. Little details like serving both sides in the contract have zero relevance to their business model. The individual agents are given achievement targets and so have no time for the niceties if they want to pay the mortgage. And of course it is much more cost effective to employ minimally experienced drones to handle the phones and use software to do the pattern matching between CV and job description.

All of which is fine if you’re dealing with a commodity market like general development, operations and service management roles. But it’s a serious problem for all sides if you are a little more senior, or have niche skills in some area or another. Or even if, like many, you aren’t a specialist in any given field, just a good, solid all-rounder who can make a success of any contract they’re given.

In effect you start from scratch every time you need a new contract. No matter how good you are, you still have to get through the auto-pilot box-ticking recruitment business we have these days. The one that says the agent gets a new role then stands there waving a piece of paper in the air to see who might be interested: usually several hundred, often hopelessly under qualified people on average. The signal to noise ratio in recruitment is actually appalling. How much cleaner if he had the resource to hand when the role comes in.

So how do we change the paradigm (see, I can do business speak as well…). The answer is surprisingly obvious.

The contractor pays the agent, not the client. Shock, horror…

Seriously, it would work. I have many skills but selling isn’t one of them, nor is cold-calling to find work (actually that’s just cowardice, but the result is the same). So why not outsource that part of the business to someone who does it for a living? The agent goes to the client with a zero margin deal. The contract would have to be B2B and, legally, you would have to be opted out of the Agency Regulations, both of which would appear to be good ideas. You know, solid in business indicators, no IR35, no AWR, no secret upper contracts…

There would be no hint of you being anyone’s employee either, since you’re at the top of the contract, not the bottom.

The agent would have to know who you are, what you can do, what you are worth and what your history is. He would be able to sell you actively and be incentivised to find you repeat business, since that’s where his margin comes from. He could specialise in given areas and build up a stable of people with the relevant skills, or he could be the one to fill the awkward jobs from his knowledge of his customers.

Best of all, you set the gross and the agent gets the percentage.

So what’s not to like? If you’re big enough and strong enough to build and justify a working reputation, and be able to be sold into an open market, why not go for it? I’d happily pay for that level of access and support, which has to be better than fighting your way to the top of some disinterested minion’s in tray to get noticed.

All we want is a couple of good agencies with the courage to bite the bullet and disregard the way they’ve always done it.

Ah. That might be a problem. Anyone know any brave, risk-taking agency FDs…?

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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One day, sanity will prevail. But I suspect I’ll have retired by then.

An interesting idea was floated this week on one of the websites I haunt. Someone was getting just a little exasperated at the identity proving process we all suffer these days, and rather than drive 50 miles to an agency’s offices to show them his passport was wondering if having a Skype video conference with the agent while holding his passport would suffice.

General response was along the lines of nice idea, but these are agencies we’re dealing with so probably not. It’s not that we have any objections to proving we are who we say we are; it is to everyone’s benefit, after all. But the whole thing is getting just a little surreal.

Start with the passport thing. What everyone fails to remember is that a passport is only proof of identity if you are the one holding it. Copies, be they full colour images, redacted black and white scans, video image, even with you in the frame – none of these are proof of anything beyond your skills with a digital camera. You have to be there, holding it, at which point the other guy can take a copy of the photo page – nothing else just that page – for their own records.

And there’s another issue. The more peripatetic contractors – like me, for instance – go through this farce several times a year. Just how safe are all these copies of a Crown documents, I wonder? And how many of them are deleted once they are no longer needed?

And given the quality of most of my communications from agencies, just how accurate are the supporting records anyway? We will never know…

The real irritation, though, is that the whole exercise is totally unnecessary. And, as usual, we have to look to those bastions of professionalism and awareness, the agencies and the Human Remains Resources teams.

Because HR are usually in the loop for hiring contractors, they only think of them as pseudo-employees. OK, that’s an old argument that bores even me, but it’s still true. Therefore the master contract the agency has with the end client’s HR team is framed in terms of employment law. This, among other things, lays fearful penalties on clients who don’t ID check their employees.

Agencies, being at the higher end of the risk averseness scale, take great care not to offend. Hence they go to great lengths to ensure everyone they touch is checked. Except I am not an employee of anyone, I am an independent supplier. I’ve checked the people I send out to work for me and am more than willing to assert that I know who they are and that they are allowed to be here. And take any penalties you care to throw at me if I’m wrong. And since I’m not the agency’s employee – much as they like to pretend we are – and certainly not the client’s, there is no legal obligation to ID check me all over again.

All that has to happen is for agencies to have two contracts with their clients: one for employees, one for freelancers. Do that and not only do a lot of contractual arguments go away – along with 90% of the threat of IR35 and the AWR of course – but they save themselves hundreds of pointless man hours a year which, you might think, would appeal to the bean counters who run most agencies these days.

But far too simple a solution will never catch on. Especially if nobody triers to sell it.

And just to close, how about this for idiocy. One guy was asked for his NI number as well as his passport and “other documentary proof of address” to get a building pass. NI numbers aren’t a proof of anything, as the Home Office is at pains to point out. For one thing, while the numbers are unique they may have been given to, or used by, more than one person. So not really a lot of good to anyone as a proof of anything.

One day, sanity will prevail. I suspect I’ll have retired by then.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited

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The three headed dog from hell or a huge step in the right direction?

I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but there’s a bit of a revolution going on this weekend. Something I’ve been banging on about since early 2003 is facing a big and, to my eyes, rather significant change. And I bet 90% of the people it affects don’t even know about it.

It’s called Cerberus. OK, that’s a three headed dog from hell to some, but to others it’s a huge step change.

Cerberus is primarily a Case Management System to look after the security clearance of anyone who holds it or are put up for clearance in order to get work in any of the myriad HMG-sponsored roles that demand it. It’s aim is to simplify and standardise what is currently a fairly creaky and almost totally paper-based system.

I’ve spoken before (at great length, some may say…) about the Catch-22 of no clearance means no job but you can’t have the clearance without the job. This is especially true of contractors, who have to be able to take up new roles on fairly short order; permanent staff are usually (but not always) in a position to stay with the old job or otherwise sit around until they are allowed to start the new one. So contractors like me are the real victims of this situation to the extent that I was not allowed to apply for a role a while back to implement a system I’d designed while I was cleared, since my clearance had lapsed in the interim.

The reason for this is the blind insistence from many agencies and more than a few prime contractors is that clearance takes forever to come through and without it you can’t work. And since the rules are that you can apply for clearance without a sponsor, the net effect is the aforementioned Catch-22, and the jobs on offer go to the same old circle of those inside the fence.

But this is wrong on several counts.

Firstly the main clearance agencies have been working to get their existing systems much more efficient. DVA, who look after the MOD, routinely clear 95% of SC clearances in less than 30 days and can fast track them in as little as 10. Again using me as the example, I was cleared by one of the constabularies to the same level in two weeks flat. So time is not really an issue.

Secondly you don’t need clearance to start the job, most of the time. The basic level of BPSS is not a million miles away from the kind of ID and residency checks we are routinely asked to do for any role. BPSS allows you to access material marked up to “Restricted”, which is around 90% of it. There are a very few exceptions, where informed supervision can’t be given, and until your full clearance comes through you will have to be collected from the front gate and taken back to it, but that’s hardly a major barrier to overcome.

And finally if you only ever take your workers from the same limited gene pool, how are you ever going to improve? Hoe many projects have failed because of the lack of up-to-date skills and practices I wonder.

Cerberus will bring all the clearance records into a single database, supported by on-line e-forms to replace the paperwork. All the various clearance agencies will have access to it, led by DVA and the Home Office equivalent, which makes everything far more traceable and, more importantly, transferable (my police clearance is not accepted by DVA, even though the police checks are actually slightly more rigorous. Go figure…)

So a big step forward. The target is to get SC clearance down to 15 days and CTC to less than a week. Let’s just hope the agencies notice…

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

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How to bid for freelance work in a fog of ignorance

Have you ever thought that contracting is about the only job where you have no idea how much you should be charging? You go for a job, you talk to the agency advertising it (assuming you can find them at their desk…) and you have a two minute chat about the work required. With a bit of luck (and some smart questions) you will know where the job is based, roughly what’s to be done and what the agency believes the key issues are (there’s always issues in my experience!).

What you don’t yet know, usually, is who the client is and quite probably not even what their line of work is. That’s because if the agent decides you’re a waste of his time, he doesn’t want you calling the client and offering your services directly, so he’s only protecting his own business.

But on the basis of this rather minimal information you will be asked how much you would charge. And that’s where it gets difficult.

Personally I have a clear idea in my head about what I would like to charge. The answer, oddly enough, is not “as much as I can” although that is certainly one of the parameters. I know what I need to live and I know my routine overheads, so I can work out how much I need to earn a year to pay the mortgage and keep the dog in biscuits. Working on the assumption I’ll probably work seven months a year (OK, that’s a bit low, but I’m getting lazy in my old age) I can set a base day rate.

To that you add the cost of getting to the job. Daily commutes are either so many miles at 40 pence per mile or the rail fares. Staying away I usually cost at £100 a day (slightly more in the Smoke, but that’s usually commutable). Either way I add that amount to the day rate; while I do an all inclusive deal for my labour, I also aim to recover all my costs.

Finally I add a fiddle factor, based on the seniority of the role (it costs more if I’m managing people, for instance) and something I call the risk factor, which reflects how hard the job is going to be and how much damage I could do if I get it wrong. Then add 15%: after all, I aim to make a profit at the end of the day.

So then I have a base price. Sadly, so does the agent, driven by what the client tells him the budget is and his own margins. If we’re really lucky the two will coincide. If we’re even luckier, the agent will be willing to beat the client up to what I want, since he gets more money that way as well. These days, though, that’s increasingly unlikely.

One problem is that the clients have a very clear idea of what they want to pay, Unless you are a serious specialist, there is very little chance you can name your own price any more. Most clients have a rate card of their own which they use to cost their own internal budgets: it’s a brave manager who will deliberately put in an overspend on his own budget. Then there are the companies who have no idea, who set the budget by dividing the permie’s salary by 260, who set the rate stupidly high – councils are good at that one – or even do a kind of Dutch auction, asking for three CVs and saying they’ll take the cheapest (oddly enough they are also the ones wondering why their delivery record on projects is so poor…).

Of course it would be good if we could delay the rate discussion until the interview stage, but that would expose the agent’s margin which would never be allowed. Or we could go in with a per diem and a percentage share of any resultant savings or client income growth depending on the role. (Someone I trained did exactly that: offered to do a job for 10% of the first year’s savings then proceeded to save his client £2.4 million…)

But at the end of the day you are having to bid for work in a fog of ignorance. This probably explains why my rate now is usually within 10% of what I was on 15 years ago when I started out.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

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My new year resolution

Is not to lose weight (a lost cause, I fear) or cut down on booze (shudder), but something that’s far better for the heart rate: to stop being get annoyed with Recruitment Agencies any more. I will try to see them as being more like my dog; smart by the standard of his peers, keen to do well but not really sure how to achieve it. The reason being that having cunningly avoided the worst of the snow by being terminated three weeks before Christmas – serve me right for delivering the project early! – I start the New Year looking for the next challenge.

This means I’m back in the commoditised world of modern agencies, where speed is of the essence and box ticking is the required skill. And that is why most of the time my 30-odd year career is being assessed by someone with a job history measured in months and that has successfully managed to avoid any contact with IT at all. Still it’s not their fault, so no point getting worked up about it, is there?

One positive thing I have done is to get my CV reviewed by a couple of people who know about such things. I thought it wasn’t too bad, to be honest, and followed all the usual recommendations, but clearly not. Nobody said so explicitly but I got the feeling they all thought it a bit clumsy, a bit wordy and just a little unfocussed. Come to think of it, that describes me pretty well so what’s the problem…

Anyway, it’s had a revamp and it’s being rewritten to suit each role I’m applying for to ensure I’m highlighting the relevant bits of my skills. And it seems to be working. I’ve even had agents call me back on receipt, which is almost unheard of.

It’s also encouraging that there seem to be a lot more jobs out there right now. Mind you, every single one is demanding that you have a million year history in their business and nobody else need apply. That’s fair enough in finance, which is a world of its own, and some of the regulated industries, but quite often it is a terribly blinkered way of looking at it.

The worse culprits are the Public Sector. These are organisations that are looking at having to make savage savings, they need to get the best value from every penny they spend, and they need to explore all sorts of alternatives to survive the year.

So what do they do?

Firstly, they outsource their recruitment to people like Commensura, who are very good at supplying standardised bulk skills like cleaners at minimum effort (and usually minimum rate), but hardly appropriate for finding a specialist. Then they offer some frankly mad rates, either way under market rate or well above it. Then worst of all they exclude everyone who isn’t already in a Public Sector role. Which I think is unforgivable.

Think about it. One of the key things they can do is to share services, consolidate common functions and infrastructures and even outsource some areas so as to minimise overheads and maximise economies of scale. That is not a trivial exercise, and it’s not something that most public bodies have really tried (there are some notable exceptions, of course). So why do they think they have to disregard people with extensive business knowledge in this area and that have made it work, simply for doing it in industry. Apart from having to understand the dead hand of OGC procurement policy – which is easily learned in a day or so – those people are exactly what they need. But will they hire them? Nope, let’s stick with people who know all about how we work now and nothing about how we can work better.

And going back to the professionalism of the average agency. I just got an email from one of the big ones. Do I fancy applying for a Help Desk role paying £15 an hour on a three shift system in North Yorkshire? I may have to think about that one….

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

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Record breaking increase in the number of new contractors

My research has revealed a record breaking increase in the number of new contractors / limited company formations, which supports the theory of a new entrepreneurial culture developing to partly replace the traditional employment culture, as a result of the economic crisis.

Many jobs are being shed by the civil service and local government, with quangos being particularly hit hard. The government have stated their expectation that the private sector will replace a lot of the jobs and functions hitherto carried out by the public sector.

According to the Management Consultancies Association which represents 70% of the industry in the UK, member organisations have already seen a significant fall in public sector work, with most expecting to drop further in the remaining part of the year.

An increasing number of consultants are setting themselves up with their own business to position themselves to take advantage of the new way of doing business in the UK. Their client organisations are increasingly looking to become more flexible, preferring to outsource and sub-contract rather than employ permanent staff, with all of the financial and legal risk that traditional employment involves.

An increasing number of agencies are in the marketplace to provide an important link between the client organisations and the contractors and consultants who can fill the required roles.

In my experience, the hourly rates achievable by independent contractors are nearly always significantly higher than what the consultant would be likely to expect if they were employed by the same business.

In nearly every case, it is best to form a limited company and take a small salary and high dividends to maximise take-home remuneration. It is now possible to set up a limited company in a matter of hours and set up a business bank account within a week. Also, with the advent of online VAT registration, it is now possible to register within a few weeks.

By registering for the VAT Flat Rate Scheme (FRS) and maximising claims from their company for allowable business expenses, consultants can optimise their take home remuneration by operating through their own limited company.

All good accountants will be able to explain in simple terms the benefits and the ease of working through your own company. For more information visit our website or please don’t hesitate to call 0800 8 40 40 14 or email me.

Graeme Bennett is a Director at Forbes Young Accountants
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Coalition should rethink the new compulsory pension scheme

The FSB thinks that micro firms should not need to comply with the government’s new pension scheme that comes into effect in 2012.

Under the new plans, all businesses need to enrol their employees in a pension scheme automatically but this would cause an undue burden on firms with 10 staff members or less, according to the Federation.

The FSB also believes that the government set up pension schemes do not meet the requirements of SMEs and that the time and money spent on their administration would be damaging.

Mike Cherry from the FSB said that whilst they welcomed plans that encourage people to save for the future, the new automatic payroll pension scheme will cause administrative headaches for smaller businesses.

To back up their comments, the FSB conducted research that revealed that 70% of business owners are not confident about selecting a pension plan for their employees due to its complexity. To solve this problem, the FSB suggests that a default scheme is set up and anyone who is currently not in a pension scheme should be enrolled.

The REC, on the other hand, is concerned about the auto-enrolment issues for recruitment agencies using temporary workers. The Confederation would like there to be a six month qualifying period before a worker is enrolled into a pension scheme. They point out that the bureaucracy involved in setting up a new scheme for a worker who is only temping for a few weeks will not be off-set by savings benefits.

The REC intends to work with the coalition to make sure the pension reforms will work for everybody concerned.

In addition to the qualifying period, the REC is calling for an option that allows workers to opt out of the scheme before enrolment and the maintenance of the National Employment Savings Trust which all employers can access.

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The job curiosity shop

August is traditionally a time when the Job Market goes into limbo. People are away on holiday, trade generally winds down, France stops completely and people are generally more relaxed than usual. Thing is, though, that this August is doing some strange things.

For a start, Public Sector work seems to have vanished entirely. This is not exactly unexpected, of course, given the Coalition’s policies in this area, but it’s been so abrupt you have to ask yourself if the powers that be have really thought it through. For example I was up for one process rationalisation role recently that, with a following wind, would have probably resulted in a cost saving considerably larger than what I would have charged them for doing it. The role got canned, sadly, since they can’t recruit anyone – even non-permanent people like me – on account of HMG’s directives. This means that they will actually now be spending money over the next six months that they don’t need to spend because they are not allowed to spend any money. Not my understanding of economics, but there you go.

However look at the wonderful world of Finance and the stream of new roles is never ending. This doesn’t help me find work, of course, because these roles will naturally only ever go to people who already work in the Finance industries, even roles in my arena, Service Management, which is largely unconcerned with the nature of the industry. In effect they are operating the same apartheid as all those Government hirers with their slavish adherence to the wrong set of rules for Security Clearance.

Then you see roles that are mostly managerial in nature, running portfolios of projects for instance, that still demand a list of technical skills. OK, you need to understand what your techies are doing, and you also need to be able to explain it to the wider business. So while I can’t configure a high availability Storage Area Network, I do know what one is and how it works. Clearly, that’s not enough; I have to be able to build it from the ground up. I thought that what was we paid the techies to do though…

And of course the agents don’t help. I didn’t get a call about a role last week because “the rate is too low to interest you”. Sorry? For one thing the job is literally 20 minutes from home; that’s worth quite a few pounds a day all by itself. Plus the rate on offer wasn’t all that awful and it was rather more than I’m earning right now.

Or there’s the other agent that actually put me forward for a fairly senior and challenging piece of work (actually one would I would really relish doing) then goes on holiday for two weeks. OK, people can have holidays, but is it too much to ask that someone else in the office at least knows the role exists? So much for managing the client’s expectations then. Or mine, come to that.

So as I say it’s all the usual frustrations and the usual clumsiness of the middle men. This is why I say you can’t really call it a Job Market any more. It’s really is more of a Curiosity Shop.

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Security clearance finally cleared up?

Back in 2002 I kicked off a bit of a debate about the Catch-22 situation regarding jobs that need people with security clearance. It’s a Catch-22 in that you can’t have clearance without the job and you can’t get the job if you haven’t got clearance.

Actually that’s not strictly true. You can work on most secure sites without clearance under supervision. More to the point, there is no reason why you can’t apply for a job simply because you don’t have clearance. That’s actually a bit of an urban myth. Sadly, though, many hiring managers and most if not all agencies take the line that no clearance means there’s no point in applying so don’t waste my time.

What really got me started on this whole issue was being told I couldn’t apply for a role with the MOD. Annoyed because 14 months earlier I’d written the strategic plan that they now wanted implementing. But my clearance had lapsed so I was no longer eligible to apply.

How stupid is that?

This is all a bit of a shame because it means that a lot of good, qualified candidates fall by the wayside at the first hurdle. If high quality candidates actually got to the interview stage, chances are that their lack of clearance would quickly cease to be a problem.

Anyway the argument rumbled on for a while. I put a white paper together that the PCG took forward and we had a significant success when the Cabinet Office, who manages this whole area, published a clarification of how the rules are meant to work. Copies of this clarification went to various key bodies, including REC who passed in on to the agencies.

Guess what? Nothing changed. Gosh…

PCG continued to debate the issue with the Cabinet Office, however, and it became apparent over time that both sides were actually in violent agreement. The rules are clear, unambiguous and entirely reasonable. They even allow for situations where you can only take on a cleared person; that’s about 5% of the jobs mind, so not really a big issue.

In fact we are so much in agreement that we now have a Prime Ministerial Statement on the subject (details can be found on the PCG website) that goes through them all over again, explains in some detail how the whole system works – or, at least, is supposed to work – and emphasises that this is not being done for fun. HMG are very serious about the problems this is causing them. So serious, in fact, that this is the first such statement since 1994.

So it will be interesting to see what, if anything, changes. After eight years of beating this particular drum, I’m not actually that confident we will see any changes at all. The agencies are too risk averse to even think about changing their model, most of the agents themselves are so convinced that you must have clearance that they’ll take no notice and already I’ve seen claims that “it’s not us it’s the clients and we’re only following orders”. Tell me, agencies; doesn’t all your publicity stress that your prime selling point is that you put forward the best candidates for the jobs? Hmmm….

I suspect this particular battle is far from won and we will need to keep up the fight. One day the majority of UK contractors who haven’t got clearance will be allowed to apply for the large number of jobs that require it that are only ever offered to the minority, but that day is a fair way off even now.

Still, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun, would it? To quote someone who presumably understood security quite well, we’ll keep buggering on.

Alan Watts can found found at LinkedIn.
© 2010 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Image: SNC00161 by Don Solo

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Let’s hear it for the cat herders

It’s been a fairly quiet week this week. There’s been nothing to get me throwing things at the TV or harrumphing over my breakfast newspaper. This is good in a way, of course, especially for the sake of the TV set, unless you have to try and find something interesting to write about…

There has been some good news, of course. The economy is still shaky but from my reading of the runes, it looks like it is slowly heading in the right direction. Although it won’t take too much to throw it all off course again.

One good thing was the PCG winning not one but two prestigious awards from the Trade Association Forum. One was for the revamped website, which has gone from being something of a logistical and visual nightmare to something really very slick. The other was to PCG’s Managing Director, John Brazier, who won the Leadership Award. This was in recognition for the work he has done in getting the PCG to where it is today (and which John sees as a reward to the whole team). Organising an association that is 99% independently-minded freelance contractors – you think I’m bad, you should meet some of my fellow members – was once described as being like herding cats. Clearly John and his team are now fully qualified cat herders.

Also, running on the back of the Coalition’s aim to reduce net immigration, a new consultation has been kicked off. This one is looking at Intra Company Transfers, and should they be in the scope of the overall cap on immigration figures.

This is actually something of a tricky one. Clearly the influx of comparatively low-skilled IT workers, brought in under ICT Visas in preparation for moving swathes of UK-based work out of the EU, is not something we want to perpetuate. On the other hand, you have to accept that companies do need to be able to move skilled specialists around the world. Plus, of course, it’s not all about IT and engineering; the reach is far wider, from medical staff to trained Thai chefs.

So an interesting challenge to come up with an fair solution. The survey can be found at the rather snappy website, surveymonkey.com (I guess they won’t be in contention at next year’s awards…). Please take a look if you want to contribute to the debate.

Meanwhile I’m still on the hunt for the next contract. I’m actually getting calls back from people and there are certainly more jobs out there than there have been, but it’s a slow old process. And a frustrating one; too many agents seem to have lost the ability to read a CV and relate it to a real job these days. If I have to answer seriously inane questions like “How many years as a Project Manager have you done?” one more time I’ll not be responsible for my actions.

Then I was promised two call backs from people promising to take a more proactive approach to selling me to the clients, rather than waiting for the right job to come along. You know, a bit like agencies used to do 15 years ago. Needless to say, neither has been in touch.

Actually the agencies themselves understand the current system is rather sub-optimal (to say the least). They are increasingly turning to networking sites like LinkedIn to find people. This, if you’re a bit of a dinosaur like me, leads to a degree of a culture shock. I’m really not too sure I can mix it wiv da kids in da cyberhood, man, innit.

Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Looks like I have some work to do!

Alan Watts can found found at LinkedIn.
© 2010 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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May you live in interesting times…

Never has the old Chinese curse seemed so relevant!

There was an interesting article on Radio 4 the other day as I was driving from the airport to work. It took the average UK family’s net income of £20,500 and used that to illustrate what the nation’s finances would look like on that scale. It turns out that the family would be borrowing £6,500 a year on top. That’s borrowing to spend on the weekly shopping, mind you, not borrowing to buy cars and houses and plasma screens. Worrying, isn’t it…

Then they looked at the various plans to cut that borrowing. The best case, apparently, would reduce it by around £250, leaving £6250. Not exactly encouraging.

So what would this mean for us freelances? Well if I knew that I’d be a rich man, but the obvious conclusion is that public sector spending will need to come down with a bit of a bump. That’s bad news if your contract is in the Public Sector, since the knee-jerk reaction of accountants everywhere is to ditch the agency workers first.

But it’s worse than that…

It means there are fewer jobs available for the freelance to apply for in the public sector, so they’ll have to look elsewhere. The problem is the market these days is so polarised into market verticals, that agents are usually incapable of putting people forward for a role if they aren’t already working in that vertical. So all the ex-public sector people become instantly unemployable.

And there’s more…

Also likely to be removed from full time employment are a raft of middle managers and back office workers. They’ll have to go somewhere, so there will be even more job seekers out there trying to grab whatever work is available.

And finally…

If the markets don’t like the new Government and their spending plans, then the stagnation in new business development will continue and contracts will become even scarcer. On the other hand they may see the new Government as the equivalent of the Second Coming and all of a sudden everything goes rocketing away. That would be nice, only I have the nasty feeling that the agencies are not so used to dealing with commoditised contractors that they will have to re-learn how to deal with a market where demand exceeds supply; after all, they haven’t had to for at least five years.

End result? Who knows; either there are fewer jobs to spread around more people and rates will be forced down for those in work, or there will be more jobs but proportionately more people going for them, meaning rates will be forced down…

Looks like an interesting – and slightly worrying- few weeks coming up.

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