Controversy hits the contracting market: Lynne Curry meets Christina Symons, who aims to change the current system of recruitment

With 20,000 contractors and 400 contracting agencies, it is not hard to calculate that if the world were a simple place, each agency would have just 50 contractors to hire out.

With a rough figure of pounds 8,000 in annual fees for each contractor, this can still guarantee a handsome income, and ensures many small companies will continue to muscle in on the market. But it means that many of the 400 agencies must be offering the same members of the 20,000, as there are not enough contractors (or contracts) around for each to offer its own exclusive list.

Most contractors are registered with at least six agencies, some with dozens, and a handful with more than 100. As a result, large agencies employ teams of telephone callers who spend their evenings checking the accuracy of the CVs on their database and that the contractor's availability is up- to-date. The solution may seem obvious: one master database with accurate details and availability. A simple search could then locate the right person available on the right date.

Christina Symons believes she has it. She wants to replace these hordes of twilight callers with Rex (Recruitment Exchange) - an 'electronic magazine' whose chief asset would be a super- database, kept up-to-date by contractors themselves via modems. If they do not have their own modem, they can call other contractors who have volunteered the use of theirs.

Launched at the Contractor Show in London last year, Ms Symons's initiative was welcomed by some agencies, who signed up for the pounds 5,000 annual subscription, enabling them to access the database and circulate their own requirements to a potentially huge bank of contractors, day and night, 365 days a year.

But Ms Symons has attracted controversy and professional opposition by a policy of not restricting the super database to agencies, but by making it available (for double the annual subscription she charges agencies) to end users. She has already been sought out by one major manufacturer and has been talking to another large organisation which has dozens of contract staff, all of them currently through agencies.

It is this service which the agencies see, not surprisingly, as a threat, although Ms Symons disagrees. 'The point of Rex is to provide a central point of information on contractor availability/skills and offer 'live' assignment opportunities, as opposed to the obsolete lists which currently appear in hard-copy contractor magazines. We see Rex as a recruitment tool/interface which can benefit the whole industry - contractor, agency and client. We want to have agencies using the system as well as end users.'

As a former agency boss herself - she established Data Processing Support Services (DPSS) in 1973 with pounds 200, selling out 14 years later in a pounds 3m deal - she believes herself qualified to say that some agencies, despite their claims, do little more for their money than act as a link between client and contractor.

Even if detractors disapprove of Rex, Ms Symons's views, her pounds 5,000 annual subscription charge or, most likely, the quantum leap of shaking the comfortable client-agency-contractor tradition, they would be hard pushed to challenge the sense of putting some order into their most basic requirement, the database of contractors whom they hope to sell.

Ms Symons says that millions of pounds are wasted by reputable agencies on the teams of telephone checkers making endless telephone calls. 'One company reckons to spend pounds 1m a year maintaining its database.'

A major part of an agency's costs, she says, is identifying the people it can offer to a client. In the early days of contractors and agencies, relationships were formed and contractors kept their agency up to date, but there are now too many multiple registrations to make this practical. 'I spoke to a contractor the other day who was on 200 agents' books. He said he got a lot of calls: I thought, 'it must be his whole social life'.'

But the larger agencies see Rex as diluting their dominance of the market, and view their team of callers as crucial to gaining an advantage, says Ms Symons. 'They may not necessarily feel they need Rex, whereas a smaller agency might view it as a service that can give them access to more information. '

Although Rex was launched as an agency-only service last March, discussions on giving companies that use contractors direct electronic access are in their early stages. The first big name to buy direct access has engaged Ms Symons's company to do the administration. She maintains that the industry is now mature enough for certain contractors to be familiar names to the people who take them on, and to decide to delete the layer that is the agency.

Despite the fact that her venture has caused such controversy, Ms Symons is not the only entrepreneur to identify an opportunity in providing accurate and contemporaneous information. Two working contractors have formed a partnership to fax the latest CVs to agencies, while another CV distributor has also entered the market in a direct challenge to long-established Central CV Circulation.

Contractors Robbie Cowling and John Witney set up Fax Me because they felt the status quo was inefficient and misleading. 'Job adverts are placed two weeks in advance, so a lot of them have either gone or they never existed; it was just the agencies second-guessing,' says Mr Cowling. 'We're a computerised industry and we'd like to reverse the system, advertising contractors looking for work right now to agencies.'

The service made no charges and ran at a loss for several months and has just begun to levy fees. At weekends, agencies can still obtain a CV for 50p (this rises to pounds 5 for an immediate transmission). A touch-tone telephone keypad is used to request a faxed copy of any CV selected from a newsletter which summarises all the possible available candidates and is faxed to 250 agencies every weekend.

So far, 116 agencies have become account-holders and the database, which was started from scratch, holds about 2,000 names. Contractors are not charged to register. The second relative newcomer is the CV Distribution Service, which aims to undercut the established rates per CV.

Boat-rockers are not generally welcomed into the contracting arena, but some operators see competition as a positive thing. Jan Fraser, a partner in direct contractors Quantum, says choice is good.

'All initiatives that create more choice in the market place are to be welcomed. Our own direct contract concept of recruitment, which four years ago caused such anxiety to traditional agencies, has now become an accepted and established option giving clients the opportunity to choose the kind of service which best suits their particular needs.'

Rex, Garden House, London Road, Sunningdale, Berkshire SL5 0LL (0344 23293); Fax Me, Milton Keynes (0850 976511); CV Distribution Service, Burgess Hill, West Sussex (0444 241360).

(Photograph omitted)

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