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Sweden – Agency workers could decrease flexibility, according to research

21 June 2012

Temporary agency workers risk facing limited development opportunities and employability while they might also reduce business flexibility, new research from the University of Gothenburg claims.  

Some may frown at these findings because the staffing industry has long made it clear that agency workers benefit from positive career development and also play a pivotal part in providing flexibility to staffing buyers.

But Hannes Kantelius who wrote the thesis on ‘The Logic of Using Temporary Agency Workers – Individual and Organizational Consequences’ said to Staffing Industry Analysts that “If you look on the possibilities for competence development in the long run for certain groups of agency workers on long-time assignments, which according to CIETT is longer than three months, this might become problematic.”

He argues that agency workers assigned to more complex work tasks which take longer to learn “do not get any more training than what is needed for the everyday work. And if an agency worker has been working on the same assignment for several years, the possibilities for competence development may become limited.”

So he concluded that “the purpose of using temp workers is often to increase the user firm's flexibility. But if this staffing strategy does not give enough attention to competence requirements and the time required to train newcomers, it may instead lead to unforeseen inflexibility.”

Although his findings relate to his empirical study of 500 white collar workers in the industry, he emphasised that he could not make general statements. But he told Staffing Industry Analysts that more than half of those surveyed “did not perceive any employment security, that is, that they had gained any competence they thought might be useful at another user firm.”  Among those who do perceive an acceptable level of security, this is mainly due to access to competence development and how the workers are integrated into the user firm.

He warned that “It seems like the temp industry may be facing a division between workers with good work conditions and a decent level of employment security and those with worse work conditions and a low level of security. The perceived employment security is largely determined by the worker's perceived prospects for future employment.”

Around 1.4% of employed people in Sweden can be found in the temporary staffing industry, which has grown in recent years. But Mr Kantelius said that the image of the industry is often black or white. “The persons who are against the staffing industry will not admit its benefits, and the persons who are [for] the staffing industry will not admit the problems connected to it,” he argued.

The thesis is based partly on qualitative case studies at a number of user firms and temporary agencies and partly on a questionnaire survey completed by more than 500 white-collar agency workers. The case studies concern only user firms engaged in long-term use of temporary workers. The study shows which organisational mechanisms are at work when temporary workers are used, but also how the logic of using temporary agency workers for example can lead to differences in development opportunities between the user firm's own personnel and the workers from the temporary agency.

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