UK: CHEQUERED CAREER PATH. - Not all employers are enamoured of fixed-term contracts.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Not all employers are enamoured of fixed-term contracts.

It's generally accepted that - for many - the era of lifetime employment is at an end; that in future they must be prepared for serial employment, and possibly for serial careers. Indeed there is statistical evidence of a wildfire spread of fixed-term contracts, which suggests that the future is already here. This summer a survey of 79 companies by career consultants Sanders & Sidney found that over 70% had engaged staff on fixed-term contracts within the past year. One job in five offered by these companies is now on a fixed-term basis. The consultants also discovered that most job-seekers accept fixed-term employment with 'considerable reluctance'. While this finding will surprise no one, it could have serious implications for morale, commitment and everything that goes under the heading of corporate culture.

For employers, the great attraction of fixed-term employment, and the main reason why they expect the present apparently explosive growth to continue, is flexibility. And that can be good for employees as well. Mary Chapman, chief executive of Investors in People UK maintains that fixed-term contracts are of benefit to both parties.

Others accept that the advantages are not always perceived as evenly balanced.

For The Industrial Society, spokesman Stefan Stern, says that, 'We need to invest the word "flexible" with its full merited meaning ... It should be a two-way relationship.'

Veronica Hope Hailey, a lecturer in strategic human resource management at Cranfield University, accepts that fixed-term contracts are a cause of anxiety among employees but considers that this is only a stage in a transition curve: 'The next stage may see them beginning to reengineer their lifestyles to suit the changed environment.' Besides, she argues: 'There's no reason why employers should not incorporate all the normal benefits of employment (including training) into fixed-term contracts'.

The 230-odd past and present job applicants who, in addition, took part in the Sanders & Sidney study were in no doubt about where the benefit lay at present: 93% said employers had most to gain. Most candidates worried about the difficulty of getting mortgages and pensions. Large majorities also thought fixed-term contracts undermined morale and team-building, although they personally would work hard in the hope of being offered a permanent job - a vain hope mostly, since the employers only intended a stop-gap arrangement.

But in what sort of jobs, and in which industries, is the shift to fixed term most marked? 'It affects people at all levels, in every walk of life,' says Sally Davis, in charge of marketing at Sanders & Sidney. The consultants had found such positions as head of HR, and medical officer, offered on a fixed-term basis. The range of industries is similarly wide, although Davis singles out IT for special mention. Approximately 15% of staff at Allied Dunbar are temporary - 'mainly in IT,' says Kevin Gould, the company's recruitment director. However, Gould expects 'the fringe' to grow and Allied Dunbar is about 'to start looking at interim management', too, as a hedge against downsizing.

IT specialists are always in demand and so may be among those least at risk from fixed-term work. However, Geoff Armstrong, director general of the Institute of Personnel and Development, warns against 'casualisation'.

'You can't enforce a smile, you can't enforce commitment,' he says. 'Organisations have taken this too far.' Although there are signs that pensions and mortgage providers are becoming more flexible, it is towards the lower end of the scale that anxiety is often most acute.

But not all employers are keen on fixed-term contracts. Many high-street shops take on extra staff pre-Christmas, but there's little sign of temporary work extending to other periods. 'If anything, it's going the other way,' says Peter Cox, personnel director at Dixons. 'We try to offer full-time employment; we feel it's to our advantage in the long term,' says Jean Haines, personnel controller at Bentalls, the department store. It's the same story from Marks & Spencer to Debenhams.

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