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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Graduate Software Developer / Junior Developer

£20 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Software Develop...

Recruitment Genius: Delegate Telesales Executive - OTE £21,000 uncapped

£16000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: High quality, dedicated Delegat...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - School Playground Designer

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Traffic Planner

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As the successful candidate you...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor