The Rise And Rise Of The Non-Permanent Worker

It was something many young people of
my era did when we needed to and left behind as our obligations increased and we embarked on career and permanent employment.
But the world of work changed, the confluence of two major forces- growing international competition and rapid technological advance profoundly changed the nature and content of work. Ongoing corporate downsizing, mergers and acquisitions and restructuring are profoundly changing how work is done, how many and which types of workers do that work and the skills that are required.
In the US, both the number and percentage of self employed and non-permanent workers grew consistently from the early ’70s to mid ’90s. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, employment in “Personnel Supply Services” grew from 619,000 in 1983 to 2.2 million in 1994. It also estimates that employment in this field will grow at an annual rate of 4.3 percent, reaching level of between 3.5 and 3.6 million individuals by the year 2005.
In Britain, Japan, Canada, Germany, and France the number of casual employees has also risen significantly. In Australia over the last 20 years the use of casual employees has grown threefold from 700,000 to more than two million today. Casuals make up some 26 percent of the Australian workforce.
In New Zealand according to survey done in 1995, non-permanent employees including consultants make up some 15 percent of the workforce.
Casualisation has been trend of the ’90s and is continuing. Something more and more people are doing because they have no choice, something workforce built on outsourcing, downsizing and supply and demand is asking for more and more.
Twenty years ago Charles Handy predicted that the technological revolution would cause downsizing and the emergence of portfolio workers (see separate box). Today that prediction is being fulfilled around the world.
In his book Beyond Certainty, Handy wrote “Entire floors of office buildings are emptying and whole layers of management are going out the window, full echelons of support staff are being told to support themselves.”
He predicted that employees who are not connected to the core tasks in the business would soon find themselves in new relationship. “They will become more or less independent actors in the business support network – jobbers, piece-workers, consultants, temps of all sorts and degree, all plying their different trades and skills.”
In 1996 world-renowned economist Jeremy Rifken in his book The End of Work noted that the 40-hour week in America was already coming to an end.
Today the eight-hour day and the five-day Monday to Friday working week are history. We are now part of the global market which is timeless and very competitive. To survive, New Zealand enterprise must be flexible, fast thinking and adaptable and free of impediments that could inhibit these responses. Providing jobs has been replaced by focus on getting results in the most cost effective manner.
As Handy predicted, range of flexible work practices has emerged through an army of non permanent workers, viz part-time workers, contract workers, temporary workers and portfolio workers. Employers are hiring to meet work demands and can no longer offer an assurance of employment tenure.
Rifken says that the industrial age ended slavery and the information age will end mass labour. Therefore there’s critical need to create renaissance addressing what to do with young workers and how to grow global employment. He goes on to say education of information technology and upskilling is good but cannot retrain the whole workforce because “knowledge employees” are “elite” and only small teams are required.
The virtual business phenomena means the need for just-in-time employees.
Rifken also suggests that we may need to create new sector which he calls the civic society which can provide highly valued society work for young people in the community. (He suggests two years fully paid employment by the Government after leaving school.)
However, Hewlett Packard, one of the James Collins “Visionary Companies”, has met the challenge in very positive way. It has negotiated with its unions to allow flexible working hours without penalty rates but with increased pay, so that workers are receiving more take home pay for reduced weekly hours. But Hewlett Packard is able to operate its plant with 24-hour shifts in win-win situation.
Employing part-time staff gives an employer the flexibility to deal with changing or fluctuating work demands. The same flexibility can be important for the part-timers themselves. This is demonstrated by the increased popularity in recent years of “temping” as short or long term career option.
Many part-timers see part-time work as good lifestyle option and the best way to earn income while fulfilling family responsibilities or educational demands.
The insecurity of work is problem however and can be emotionally difficult as well as financially insecure. The non permanent worker operates in an environment where they never quite know what is coming next. There may be an expectation of ongoing work that can quickly disappear and the worker is left with that sinking feeling in the realisation “what am I going to do now?”.
There is no simple solution because what we are witnessing is worldwide trend that’s here to stay. The challenge for New Zealand is to recognise the trend and create an environment where the non-permanent worker is valued and respected member of our society making contribution to the economy which is just as important as the contribution made by the permanent worker.

David Chapman is chief executive of NZIM Inc.

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