Secretarial: Want training? Join an agency - but be quick

Many agencies allow temps a way in to well-paid permanent jobs. But a change in the law may stop that
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The Independent Culture
SO YOU know you want a new job, but you don't want to commit yourself to a company without testing the water first. The answer? Become a temp. "More than 17,000 secretaries a year use temping as a way into permanent employment because, quite simply, both you and your employer have a chance to suss each other out informally before signing a contract," explains Brian Wilkinson, vice-chair of the Federation of Recruitment and Employment Services (FRES).

"If you are both in agreement, the employer can `buy' you off your recruitment consultants and all parties are happy." But, he cautions, "The Government has plans that could destroy this option, leaving secretaries in a position where they can only lose."

The legislation in question is part of the new Employment Agencies Act, which will be considered this autumn. If it is passed, the "temp to permanent fees" charged by recruitment consultants may be abolished. "At first glance, it seems to be a good thing," Wilkinson admits. "Indeed, the Government's aim is to make it more affordable for employers to take on temps as permanent employees. The legislation would certainly get rid of cowboy consultants who charge outrageous fees."

But, he says, what the Government fails to recognise is that "temp to permanent fees" account for between 15 to 30 per cent of consultants' revenue. "That's a lot of money to lose, which would leave the consultants with little choice but to cut down on training."

"In the worst-case scenario, the only secretaries that consultants would be able to afford to take on are those who are already multi-skilled. Some might even have to cut the temps on their books by half, leaving any secretaries who are out of touch - mums returning to work and people who have only just decided on a career as a secretary."

Henrietta Edmunds, a 34-year-old PA from Birmingham, explains, "Now that my daughter is at school full time, I can return to secretarial work. I haven't decided yet whether I want to stay temping or eventually go permanent. But I wouldn't have a hope of doing either without updating my skills first. I can't afford to fund that myself, so without temping agencies offering what they do now, I'm not sure I could re-enter the labour market at all."

Indeed, a new survey carried out by the recruitment consultants Office Angels reveals that temping is currently one of the most productive ways to learn new skills. "Go for a permanent job without desktop publishing skills and knowledge of the latest software packages, and you may not get a look in," explains Paul Jacobs, director of Corporate Communications. "But sign up as a temp and you can quickly evolve into a multi-tasked IT specialist involved in a diverse range of projects. Temporary employees are no longer just taken on as `fill-ins' for absent staff. They often bring with them highly specialised skills."

Sally Hollings, of Maine-Tucker Recruitment, says the Government's plans are also likely to discriminate against some job-seekers. "Take women who are in their fifties or sixties. Many employers are still ageist and wouldn't consider them at an interview for a permanent position. If they have a chance to prove themselves as temps, however, the employers may change their minds. But if recruitment consultants have to cut back, this may not be possible."

Christine Little, chief executive of FRES, says: "In Belgium, the government outlawed `temp to permanent fees' in the Eighties; not only have temps suffered, but so have secretaries who want to apply directly for permanent positions. With the option of taking on a temp who can then become permanent for no fee, employers no longer need to bother advertising for permanent positions."

Many consultants who provide only permanent placements have been forced out of business. "What employer in their right mind would pay an introduction fee of 20 per cent of a secretary's salary when they can take on a temp who can later become permanent?"

Even the employers - who have seemingly the most to gain from the new law - have started to realise that the job market has become far less flexible and that everyone suffers in the long run, says Little. "In fact, there is currently a move by employers and unions to undo this legislation."

So what can be done to prevent it happening here? Sally Hollings has some suggestions. "There could be a sliding scale system - the longer the employer has been invoiced for the temp, the cheaper the fee; after six months or a year, the employer wouldn't have to pay a fee at all. Alternatively, there could be a limit to what consultants can charge."

Brian Wilkinson agrees. "The Government is basing its radical proposals on a few rogue businesses that could easily be penalised in other ways. In fact, a report by FRES has found the current average `temp to permanent fee' is a great deal less than it costs to put an ad in a newspaper, leaving employers, secretaries and recruitment consultants all gaining. I believe the message to the Government should be: if it ain't broke, why fix it?"