Accountancy & Management: Temporary staff here to stay: Employers are adopting a more flexible approach to workers, says Roger Trapp

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The Independent Online
HEAVEN knows, accountants need a lift. So the finding in the latest annual survey from the financial recruitment consultants Robert Half and Accountemps that 15 per cent of companies, compared with 14 per cent a year ago, plan to take on financial staff in the next 12 months is bound to lift jaded spirits.

But, as the company's managing director, Jeff Grout, points out, this figure is still in effect a negative: 18 per cent of organisations are looking at further cuts in financial personnel.

Moreover, outplacement, which gives a redundant employee help in finding a new job, continues to grow more popular. Some 70 per cent of companies that made redundancies over the past year turned to the service.

Even so, it seems that improvement is on the way, since the proportion of companies making staff redundant in the year to this month, although still relatively high, has fallen from 51 per cent to 39 per cent.

This is not to say, though, that we shall soon be seeing a return to the heady days of the mid-1980s, with young accountants able to name their salary. Those days have gone forever, says Mr Grout.

Instead, there will be further development of a concept that is anathema to many accountants - the temp. Robert Half says that the use of temps is now less likely to be a stop-gap measure than a strategic decision to acquire specialist skills to meet specific needs or to bring in extra people at peak times, such as the end of the financial year.

However, this does not mean that people who are between jobs can readily find temp work as a fill-in. Employers have a preference for Antipodeans in Britain on working holidays.

Companies clearly see long-term benefits in having a mixture of permanent and temporary financial workers. With the 1990s viewed as a period of great change and competition, such an approach is seen as vital to success.

'Employers must analyse company requirements and examine skills against work demands to identify which tasks are best performed by permanent staff and which by temporary,' said Mr Grout.

With the recession accelerating the move towards more flexible organisational structures, companies are being forced to focus on core business activities.

The popularity of 'outsourcing', or 'facilities management', means that fringe jobs can be contracted out with expensive specialists brought in only for special projects.

While the overall proportion of companies using temps is unchanged from last year, a third of them are increasing their application of them. Forty per cent of companies going down this route are consciously using it as a solution to manpower problems. Nor are these people all in humdrum tasks: just under half, according to the survey, are at least part-qualified.

Hand-in-hand with this is the development of a core workforce that is increasingly protected from the threat of redundancy. In addition, these people are likely to receive a common set of benefits that is no longer limited to senior staff.

However, the filtering down is being accompanied by a downgrading. According to the Robert Half benefits survey, the proportion of companies offering private medical cover has slipped from 91 per cent to 84 per cent, while the provision of life assurance is down to 57 per cent, from 69 per cent in 1990. Lunch subsidies continued their sharp fall, from 52 per cent in 1991 to 35 per cent this year.

The proportion receiving company cars is also slipping. However, this may have something to do with the tax law changes that have made them less attractive. Twenty per cent of large companies questioned indicated a move towards offering cash instead. Meanwhile, although 95 per cent of organisations offer a company car, the vehicles were offered to only 42 per cent of newly-qualified financial staff, a marked reduction on the previous year.

The survey of 420 organisations showed that more than two-thirds of companies were having problems finding suitable candidates. However, half of the companies having recruitment problems could not find people of a high enough standard and the other half felt many of the candidates to be over-qualified.

But there is another problem. The recession has meant that the 'better candidates' have not been making themselves available in the way that they would previously have done.

Mr Grout, though, is confident that this 'dam of desire to change jobs' will burst before the end of the year to create a situation like the housing market. This is likely to combine with a shortage of the right skills, brought about by over-tightening at the height of the recession, to push up salaries once more.

Last year, accountants' salaries rose by an average of 2.94 per cent, the lowest for more than 25 years and below the 4.75 per cent for the whole economy in the year to last December and the 3.7 per cent for managers and professionals overall in the 12 months to January of this year.

As a result, a newly-qualified chartered accountant can now expect a starting salary of up to pounds 28,000 in commerce and industry and up to pounds 26,000 in public practice. On the other hand, a financial director of a medium-sized company in the same region will earn up to pounds 75,000, with an internal auditor up to pounds 60,000 and a tax specialist up to pounds 70,000.

The biggest increases were on the south coast, where pay went up by just over 4 per cent on average, with financial services the best sector on 4.21 per cent, compared with 1.62 per cent in the public sector. Combined with the greater recruitment optimism in these areas, this perhaps suggests that financial services in London will once again soon be the place to be.

(Photograph and charts omitted)