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UK Executive Summary

The UK has not seen the recent drastic changes to the workforce that many other countries around the world have, but there are still important challenges to be examined and discussed.

There has been a slight rise in the level of part-time working, but only from 22% of the workforce to 26% in the last 25 years. Nearly two in three of those employed in the UK economy are in traditional full-time employment; pretty much the same level as it was in 1992.

The bigger difference in the UK market, to the rest of the world, is the reason people choose their methods of employment.

Firstly, temporary workers in the UK are more likely making a conscious choice to work in a temporary capacity, rather than being forced into it.

UK Employment

Source: Table EMP01: Full-time, part-time and temporary workers: People by Full-time, part-time and temporary workers (seasonally adjusted), Office for National Statistics, 12th June 2018

Reasons for temporary working

Source: Table EMP01: Full-time, part-time and temporary workers: People by Full-time, part-time and temporary workers (seasonally adjusted), Office for National Statistics, 12th June 2018

The rise of the professional freelancer

Perhaps the more significant trend is the rise of the professional freelancer. These are people who would have previously been senior employees within firms but instead now choose to act as highly skilled, professionally independent workers operating on a purely contract basis. Officially they are defined as self-employed workers, classified in the top three groups for the UK Standard Occupational Classification (SOC): Managers and directors, professional occupations, and associate occupations.

SOC 1 Managers, directors and senior officials

Individuals who have a significant amount of knowledge and experience of the production processes and service requirements associated with the efficient functioning of organisations and businesses (e.g. managers and proprietors in agriculture related services; transport and logistics; and health and care services).

SOC 2 Professional

Individuals who have a degree or equivalent qualification, with some occupations requiring postgraduate qualifications and/or a formal period of experience related training (e.g. professionals in science, research, engineering and technology; health; teaching and education; business, media and public service).

SOC 3 Associate professional and technical occupations

Individuals who have a high level vocational qualification, often involving a substantial period of full-time training or further study. Some additional task related training is usually provided through a formal period of  induction (e.g. health and social care associate professionals).

These individuals numbered 2 million in the UK by 2016, an increase of 43% since 2008, and now account for 6% of the UK workforce. According to recent research by the Antwerp Management School, more than one in four (27%) European businesses now rely on freelancers to complete core tasks.

Why choose freelancing?

There is not one overriding reason for this change; there are many smaller ones.

Flexibility is certainly one reason, either as a lifestyle choice or necessity. Working mothers are one of the largest demographics amongst freelancers, accounting for one in seven and increased 79% between 2008 and 2016. The Adecco Group UK&I’s own candidate satisfaction surveys found that the percentage of non-permanent workers, choosing it primarily for flexibility purposes, rose from 11% in 2011 to 18% in 2018.

The option of allowing freelancers to specialise in an area that they might not have the opportunity to otherwise, would be a considerable draw for some. This has benefit for businesses as well, allowing them to bring in specialist skills on a shorter term, more affordable basis. In the case of smaller businesses, these are skills they might not otherwise have access to at all.

This is also part of a wider trend in the UK workforce. Recent research from Badenoch & Clark, a member of the Adecco Group UK&I, found that younger workers are less likely to want to stay in roles than their older colleagues, in fact there was a consistent downward trend as workers got younger. Baby Boomers want to be in a role for more than seven years while Generation Z don’t even want to get to three.

Reasons why associates chose
temporary work

Source: Adecco Group UK&I,
Associate Satisfaction Survey

How long on average would you like to spend at each company in any one role?

Source: Leading today’s multi-generational workforce,
Badenoch & Clark, June 2018

Challenges to consider

This two-way flexibility is an important element of the UK’s modern economy but it was emphasised in Matthew Taylor’s: Good Work, The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices that this must be ‘genuine two-way flexibility’. Mr Taylor spoke especially of the value in digital platforms to place some form of structure and transparency around these new working methods.

This raises the subject of workforce training. If companies are more likely to buy in key skills when required, and are seemingly less likely to retain their staff for long periods, they are surely less likely to invest in them through training. Research commissioned by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants found that more than a quarter of UK workers have received no training in their jobs during the past year.

This is particularly important in a time when the spring 2018 CIPD/The Adecco Group Labour Market Outlook (LMO) suggests that one in three UK organisations have hard-to-fill vacancies, and the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has reported skills shortages at ‘critical levels’.

The Adecco Group UK&I Brexit tracker has consistently reported that upskilling the current workforce is the most likely recruitment practice following the EU referendum, but many academic papers report that employers’ investment in training has been falling for 20 years.

A social contract or mutual understanding?

There are certainly challenges that the UK must discuss and evaluate around the modern world of work. If individuals are increasingly less likely to be connected to employers for long periods of time, then who should be responsible for their development?

Of course, on many levels individuals have always been responsible for their own development but there is a wider question about the skills that the economy requires in the longer term.

If employers are not investing in their workforces then should the state be involved to a greater level?

Unlocking Britain’s Potential, an Adecco Group UK&I report, suggested that two-thirds of employers believe that skills policy should be a collaborative effort between business, the government and the education system.

Read the global report: “Time to act”