Call for flexible workforce grows as job prospects dim

The outlook for jobs growth during the next three months is the worst for more than three years, while the trend towards ``flexible'' working will accelerate, according to a new survey of employers, writes Diane Coyle.

A slowdown in the jobs market and the further spread of temporary and part-time work would undermine government hopes of a consumer-led revival in the economy later this year. Ironically, the deterioration in employment prospects is far worse in the public sector than anywhere else, according to employment agency Manpower's survey of 2,242 firms nationwide.

The prediction of weaker employment growth follows figures last week showing the unemployment benefit count rose in February for the first time in two and a half years. There were 6,800 new unemployment benefit claimants last month. In addition 27,000 jobs were lost in manufacturing in January.

Employers are planning to increase jobs in the second quarter, the Manpower survey reports, but the balance expecting to add rather than cut staff is down to 9 per cent. This compares with 12 per cent a year earlier, making the annual trend the worst since the beginning of 1993.

The balance recorded in the quarterly survey has in the past been a good indicator of actual employment trends.

Lilian Bennett, Manpower's chairman, said flexibility of the workforce was one of management's top priorities. Firms were reluctant to take on staff they might have to shed if the economic climate took a turn for the worse.

``This trend is likely to accelerate,'' she said. ``As the pace of change becomes more rapid, organisations have to be able to react more quickly.''

The survey highlighted growing demand for temporary staff. Job prospects for the next few months are most favourable in manufacturing, with 24 per cent of employers planning to add jobs and 10 per cent planning to cut them. Manpower reported that the prospect for jobs growth in services had improved, the only sector to do so. However, there was a marked deterioration in the banking and finance component.