Ever-contracting job market

Elizabeth Heathcote finds temporary accountants could soon become a permanent fixture Elizabeth Heathcote asks what it means

The growth of temporary contracts is one of the biggest issues confronting accountancy. Hays Personnel Services estimates that the market for temporary accountants has grown in excess of 30 per cent in each of the past three years; Robert Walters Associates says that 12 to 15 per cent of City employees are on temporary contracts, compared with 8 to 11 per cent three years ago. The future, many believe, lies in small teams of accountants who themselves may be on medium-term contracts, boosted at peak periods by temps.

But not everyone agrees. We talked to two employers with different views, and one accountant who is coming to terms with a life as a professional temp.

Neil Palmer is European accounting manager for UB Networks, a PC networking company and the British arm of the American group Tandem Inc.

I'm very pro the use of contract accountants. It gives me a fast result in response to increased need at heavy periods and an efficient short- term resource. For example, we recently changed our computer system and this created a huge requirement for accountants. We have four accountants on staff and for nine months we needed an extra 12, so we used temps.

Although we did have some problems recruiting people who were good enough and replaced three during the period, quality is not generally a problem. We work closely with our recruitment agency (Robert Half) and they understand the high calibre of staff we are looking for and particular skills we require.

Five years ago, before the recession, it was difficult to get temps who were good enough. Now there are accountants who consider themselves to be permanent contractors, who like the flexibility. They're still a minority, though. Most people are temping to keep money coming in between jobs and are looking for something permanent. That's the way things are now.

I believe that hiring and firing is a thing of the past. If my requirement is anything short of two years, I will take someone on a contract.

If we put someone on contract (ie, if it is not a very short-term commitment), they do get some of the benefits of permanent staff, such as holiday pay and sick pay. They do not get private health insurance or a pension, but then they earn more than staff. I've recently put two contractors on staff and they took a cut in pay to compensate for the other benefits.

Confidentiality is a problem, but it can always be a problem. There is no real difference with a temp. I think short-term contracts are definitely the future. In fact, I think terms will become even more flexible.

Martin Ibbotson is financial controller for MTV Europe.

I use temporary accountants only in extremis, when I have a lot of people out of the office on holiday or sick or whatever. We have 24 staff in the office and only one is on contract as opposed to staff, and that is only because we have exceeded our quota for this year. That person will be taken on staff as soon as possible.

We have peaks and busy times, of course, such as the year end, but overall our requirements are fairly level.

It would probably be cheaper to have a workforce made up of temps but I don't think it would be as good. You get a much better level of commitment if someone is on staff. Lack of commitment has been a problem with temps. It's only natural they should not give it their all. After all, they're probably not going to be there to see the end of a project and get the praise - or the fall-out if their work wasn't up to scratch.

There are good temps around, but if I come across one, I usually try to tempt them on to staff. We've had a fairly high turnover of staff this year and I'm keen to tie good people in and give them the benefits that MTV offers, like study leave. We work on the principle that if we treat people well, they'll work well for us.

The concept of hiring people on contract, of not taking them on staff, is negative; it is making someone feel that they are not important. Temps are treated as disposable and that has to damage the quality of their work.

Robert Webster, 42, is an accountant specialising in credit control. He has been working for TFPL, a publishing and recruitment company, on an open-ended contract since June, and has been employed on medium-term contracts for various companies since being made redundant from Texaco in 1992.

I like the variety that you get from temping. You're not stuck in one industry all the time. It is more interesting and I think it has to be good for my CV.

There is also the flexibility of being able to take time off between contracts, and I have made some use of that in the past. But once on contract, the company often doesn't want you to take holidays, so you can end up working for a long stretch without a break.

I don't think I earn more money as a temp because you have to take into account not getting holiday pay and sick pay and so on. It is always at the back of my mind that I'm missing out on benefits and not paying into a pension.

I suppose I would like more security but, to be honest, it's not an option at the moment because I haven't been offered a permanent job I'm really interested in. If I was offered the right job, I would take it.

Personally, I am as committed if I work somewhere for a week as I would be if I was on staff, but I'm less certain that that is the case with some short-term contractors. My attitude is that I'm there to do a job and I do it as well as I can.

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