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’.