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Why employers shouldn’t forget about flexible workers

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Career development, Research, Skills and training

Flexible and atypical contracts – including temporary, casual and freelance work, along with the more controversial zero hours contracts – have garnered increasing media attention recently, with the issue of zero hours contracts in particular attracting criticism from all corners.

The debate so far has focused almost entirely on the rights and wrongs of zero hours contracts at the expense of a more nuanced debate. New research by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills delves deeper into the issue and shows that, contrary to what the headlines would have us believe, the majority of people on flexible contracts are satisfied with their current job. Flexible contracts can also fit well around workers’ needs, with many choosing such jobs to fit around family commitments or part-time study.

However, the most concerning issue emerging from the research is the question of training. Workers on flexible contracts receive less training than regularly contracted employees, and are much more likely to pay for their own training. This has largely been neglected in the public debate so far, but is a central concern for both workers and employers.

Should employers invest in developing staff who may only be there for a short time, or who spend the majority of their time elsewhere? Employers interviewed by the UK Commission saw themselves as having different levels of responsibility towards highly skilled workers - who earn a high wage and should therefore come to the job with the skills required - and those who are lower skilled or at the beginning of their careers.

For this latter group, especially young people, fewer training opportunities can inhibit progression. The research found that many young people take such jobs with the expectation that they will be a stepping stone to finding permanent employment; without investment in their skills and development by their employer, there is a risk that they may find themselves stuck at the bottom of the career ladder.

Not investing in training also causes problems for the wider labour market. The UK Commission’s Employer Skills Survey 2013 found that over one in five vacancies are left unfilled due to a lack of adequately skilled people. Employers can’t afford to forget about the fifth of the workforce currently on flexible contracts. Doing so, they contribute to the problem and store up problems for the future.

Businesses have an important role to play in ensuring that skills aren’t being neglected – and an obvious self-interest in doing so. While it is often larger businesses at the top of the supply chain that train, all businesses in a sector benefit from an improved ‘talent pipeline’.

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  1. Comment by Jane Moore posted on

    "the majority of people on flexible contracts are satisfied with their current job"; this does not necessarily mean they are happy being on a zero hours contract! They may like the work they do and be desperate to have some security in it. Anecdotal evidence shows that many on zero hours contracts find it difficult to secure somewhere to live as their salary is not guaranteed. It also irks me somewhat that much is made of the fact that unemployment is falling, and it may well be the case that the bottom line is; however, scratch beneath the surface and you'll find that far too many are 'under-employed' - usually women and young people, and many more need to work 2 or 3 jobs just to survive. I'm all for choice and if people want 'flexibility' in their work then that's great, my concern is for those that just want some security and stability for their family - no wonder more children are living in poverty. Don't let's pretend that the majority of WORKERS are happy about zero hours contracts because the MAJORITY of employers are.

  2. Comment by Ken Manson posted on

    Hi Jane,

    Many thanks for your comment. The purpose of this research was to spark a debate around the issue so thank you for joining the conversation. The research consulted both employers and employees to draw on a range of views on this complex topic. We found a mixed picture on zero hours and other flexible contracts, for example young people on flexible contracts potentially having difficulty in gaining the skills they might need to progress - you can find more information on this in the paper linked from this blog. Employers certainly have an important part in developing all their staff, including those on flexible and zero hour contracts, and making sure they have opportunities to progress.


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