During the 1980s the academic and management thinker Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote: “If security no longer comes from being employed it must come from being employable”. Here at the start of the 21st century her words are proving to be very true and could be one of the best pieces of advice that all of us should heed as the move away from conventional, full-time, employment gains pace.

Evidence that fewer of us are in what used to be called conventional full-time employment with a single employer is all around us. Short-term contract work, which started as a response to downsizing and the desire to minimise fixed overheads by contracting in specialist workers as and when required, has evolved in the eyes of many of those from a necessary evil to a lifestyle choice.

By diversifying away from dependence on a single employer many of us are able to reduce risk, increase our exposure to new ideas and exercise greater control over our lives. As those who were sacked by corporates five or ten years ago tell their old colleagues of their new found success and fulfilment, the trickle becomes a flood and it seems that an ever-increasing proportion of us want to form “Me plc” – selling our services to the highest and most interesting bidder.

Changing perceptions

Before addressing what these changes might mean for the recruitment sector let's take a slightly closer look at what the employment landscape is starting to look like:

In the near future, we can expect that holding a conventional full-time position with a single employer will be a minority activity. Interim management, a particular sub-set of the trend away from conventional employment, is growing at around 25% a year and shows signs of continuing increase.

Increasingly, senior and skilled people are choosing to form “Me plc”. A few years ago contract working could have been viewed as largely the domain of those supplying commodity skills, but that is no longer the case.

Timescales are becoming more compressed. Therefore the duration of a project is probably an increasingly unreliable indicator of that project's importance, and companies will not be prepared to wait for key external members of their project teams to become available.

Full-time conventional employment and even interim management are serial activities whereby these staff work for one employer, or on one contract, at a time. In the new model more will be done on a parallel basis – working on a number of contracts during the course of a typical week.

Reacting against convention

As a recruiter, my particular interest in these changes in employment patterns is the implications that they have on the services required of recruitment consultants, and in particular the sourcing of the most senior, highest value-adding people. Possibly some elements of the executive search sector would react by claiming that what I have described above really only applies to the junior or middle levels of organisations and that these areas are already served by agencies (particularly the IT function) and there will always be a place for executive search as currently defined. I believe that this is a mistaken view – conventional executive search and selection will still have its place for years to come, but alongside this, new approaches are required to address the growing need for senior people working in “Me plc” mode.

I have found evidence for this in the increasing number of clients interested in using the services of senior managers on a timeshare basis, perhaps for just a few days each month helping the financial controller grow into a credible finance director or providing their expertise to a particular project, but where full-time input would be overkill, overly expensive or insufficiently flexible.

Can we learn anything from those areas where contracting is more prevalent, the atomisation of employment is more advanced and the balance of power lies predominantly with the individual?

An example could be TV celebrities and sports stars – in most cases even if the public associates them predominantly with one employer, but they do in fact have a portfolio of interests, managed by an agent.

Each agent will look after a relatively small number of star performers and will know their strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, proposed future career direction and commitments. The performer retains the agent because he or she sees value in their contacts, industry knowledge and general ability to reduce hassle thereby allowing them to concentrate on what they do best – performing.

A large part of what makes these arrangements work is that, by definition, the star is known and therefore the potential employer isn't buying unseen goods.

It may be some years away yet, but I can foresee moves towards the star business performers retaining talent managers to organise their working lives – promoting them to appropriate organisations and managing their utilisation. This model has the advantage of increasing speed of access to star performers as it makes it easier for them to work on many projects simultaneously, but clearly there is the question of objectivity – have you really approached the most appropriate person for the task?

This model doesn't have all the answers, but could be appropriate for business people of real stature who are known quantities – the chief executive officers and chairmen of high-profile businesses who want to round off their career with a few years working on a portfolio basis.

But what about the next level down – the vanilla layer? There are already mechanisms in place to facilitate this market, but these are really only appropriate for the current linear, serial contracting model. Interim management consultancies are used by many practitioners and can be useful in gaining access to interesting assignments and reducing the amount of time spent between assignments. Of course many interim managers, or self employed consultants, look after their own marketing, but as many will freely admit, balancing marketing with delivery can cause huge tension.

The need for increased speed of access to appropriate, high-quality, contract workers suggests that recruitment intermediaries will not have the luxury of much time to go out to the market in response to specific requests, but will need to maintain records on pre-qualified independent workers.

This is exactly what most interim management consultancies do at the moment, but an additional layer of complexity arises with the move from serial monogamous to parallel polygamous working arrangements. Consultancies will need to develop systems to track their candidates' availability, which candidates can update with ease. Internet-enabled data from candidates would appear to be the most obvious solution. Those consultancies that develop relationships with high-quality employers and individuals, and who make interaction easy will be the winners in this area.

The world is changing at a fast rate and over the past few years we have started to see some recruitment companies trying to change as well. My view is that, so far, almost all of the changes that we have seen in recruitment are associated with the increasingly arduous battle to secure scarce, high-performing talent to join organisations in conventional full-time roles. This is clearly necessary, but possibly misses the point that these high performers are forming their own “Me plcs”, and that both companies and individuals need appropriate input from intermediaries to facilitate this trade.

The recruiters response to these changes in the market are not yet clear, but that response needs to address the issues that companies and “Me plc” individuals value.

For recruiter's to have a future in this new landscape we must really appreciate what each party values, transforming their offering accordingly, and delivering with ever greater speed, efficiency and quality.

  • Tim Latham is the principal of Director Resourcing a London-based search and selection consultancy – director-resourcing.com. He can be contacted at tlatham@director-resourcing.com.

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