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Jon Milton


Business Development Director

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Understanding the differences in types of temporary labour


With an estimated £24bn per year being spent by businesses on temporary workers, it is clear that these contingent – or ‘as needed’ – workers are a key component of a complex UK workforce. Many people still, however, do not understand the full spectrum of temporary labour that exists, nor its significance to the UK economy in recovery.

During the recession, numerous organisations were forced to downsize to remain afloat. Now, though, as the UK economy picks up and unemployment figures continue to fall, these same companies are coming to realise that they have staffing gaps to fill. The economic landscape has changed quickly in the past few years, and successful businesses have not stood still. To embrace this fast movement and efficiency, firms often need to have an agile workforce that can be flexed to the company’s changing needs. This need is fuelling the growth of the temporary labour workforce.

So why do businesses use contingent workers?

The UK workforce is complex. Current approximations show that over 191 different job categories are currently being advertised, and each of these job categories can be further sub-divided. In addition to this complexity, there are an estimated 16,000 recruitment agencies operating over 19,000 locations, and some businesses will be engaging with contingent workers in over 30 different job categories.

Essentially, both the need for and supply of the UK’s workers is incredibly intricate. Managing this complexity is key for businesses to take control of their personnel and their bottom line. Understanding the distinct types of hiring communities that exists for temporary workers is an important way to take advantages of the benefits of a flexible contingent workforce. There are four distinct groups, or hiring communities, of temporary workers that all businesses should be aware of.

The four types of contingent workers

Front line staff

One of the most commonly used type temporary worker is ‘front line’ staff. Front line temporary workers are called upon by businesses which rely on people to deliver their core service and are used to cover sickness, annual leave, maternity leave, seasonal peaks, and when recruiting for permanent roles. Without a full front line workforce, they would be unable to deliver the services they promise. Due to the impact of front line services on reputation and profit, it’s easy to see why managing this type of temporary front line workforce is so important.

However, recruiting front line staff can be complex. Whilst some recruitment can be planned – such as maternity leave and cover for permanent roles – front line temporary workers are often requested at brief immediate, pressing notice, and may be for short periods of time, such as shifts or days. Having a local agency that can supply temporary workers can help organisations best use front line staff.

Examples of job categories in this group: Drivers, refuse loaders, hospitality workers, caterers, warehouse staff, nurses, care assistants, doctors, and teachers

Project-based temporary staff

Project-based temporary staff are another key type of contingent worker. Generally called on to a specific project or assignment for a finite period of time, these workers tend to bring specialist expertise to a business. Often the specific and/or specialist knowledge they bring to a role isn’t relevant for a long-term or permanent contact of work, but it has led to the development of ‘career temps’ – workers with a CV reflecting a breadth of technical projects.

Project-based workers tend to predominantly exist in scientific, technological or engineering fields. As their assignments require planning, these workers are often recruited for in reasonable advance of the start date. They also tend to be high-cost and look towards specialist companies, recruiters and other niche market experts to expand their professional portfolio.

Examples of job categories in this group: IT project specialists, specialist engineers, construction project contractors

Interim leader

When a CEO, director, or other kind of ‘head of’ business exits a company, replacing their specialist experience can be challenging, particularly if no clear succession planning is in place. This is where the third type of contingent worker steps in – the interim leader. These highly specialist and potentially complex roles require special planning for hiring.

The lead time for finding interim leaders may be shorter than other roles if the reason for hire has come about abruptly. They tend to be highly experienced and well-paid to reflect their ability to manage both customers and candidates at an executive level.

Examples of job categories in this group: CEO, CFO, head of service, director

Back office staff

The final group of temporary worker is perhaps the most familiar: back office staff. These white collar contingent workers, often associated with administration positions, can cover a multitude of different categories. Back office workers tend to be brought in as cover for permanent positions. In some cases, these workers can be used by businesses who like to ‘try before they buy’, ensuring they have the best fit for their organisation.

These roles are relatively easy to fill, though the breadth of positions that fall into this category mean that some specialist knowledge of the job, such as for payroll, may be needed to find the best staff.

Examples of job categories in this group: Administration clerk, finance manager, HR assistant, marketing executive, procurement manager, etc.

The increasing diversity and complexity of UK businesses means that the need for flexibility at all workforce levels seems set to grow. Understanding the different types of temporary worker that exist can help those in charge of hiring decisions to take advantage of the benefits of a contingent workforce. As the UK jobs market continues to recover, the knowledge of the benefits and differences in contingent workers will set businesses in good stead for the future.

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Jon Milton

Business Development Director

Read more from Jon Milton

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