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China - 'Free agents' increasing

23 December 2013

Employers will have to rethink their approach to hiring, organisational structure and strategic planning. And workers will have to balance the advantages of greater flexibility and freedom to control their own careers with the removal of the "safety net" provided by a full-time role.

"If you look at [US political] campaign speeches before the Second World War, it is all about craftsmen, tradesmen, small shop owners. In general, people did not work for an employer for life - that was seen as a form of servitude - but essentially for themselves," says US-based Camden.

From the 1950s, though, came the rise of the corporate bureaucrat in the more developed economies. Until, that is, the more recent changes inspired by a combination of technology, financial crisis, demographics and evolving aspirations, which have seen the revival of "free agent" ideals and attitudes.

At present, the fastest growing segment of free agents is in high-skilled, high-demand groups such as lawyers, accountants, scientists, engineers, programmers, and substitute teachers. But there is also burgeoning interest among "under-recruited" groups such as women, retirees, at-home workers, and individuals who simply want more say over when and where they work.

"People who voluntarily choose this work style are better educated and more employable than the general population, and they understand that job security is an oxymoron," says Camden. "Organisations must adapt to offer the kinds of opportunities and engagements these critically-skilled workers demand."

Teresa Carroll, general manager of Kelly's outsourcing and consulting group and senior vice-president of its Centers of Excellence, estimates that free agents already account for about 45% of the workforce in the US.

In Asia, Carroll notes that "talent supply chain management" is even more challenging. "Aside from the war for talent, the regulations and the costs, there's a unique psychographic in Asia," she says. "In this region, full-time employees are now free agents - loyalty is pretty much dead."

Carroll sees a bright Asian future for recruitment process outsourcing and management service provision, which are now entrenched in the West. "The challenge for organisations is to pull together all the talent sources. This is crucial as big companies spend USD 2 billion to USD 3 billion to tap various talent sources," she says.

Another trend that could take root in Asia is "online staffing", where internet-based firms "collate" all freelancers and offer their services to subscribers. "This is now a USD1 billion industry and growing," Carroll says.


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