As a contractor recruiter, I’ve worked through every market crisis going since 2000, but this ongoing one caused by the pandemic of covid-19 in the UK has been very different, writes Natalie Bowers, co-founder of niche financial staffing agency Bowers Partnership.
Contracts? They went through the floor
The rub is that the volumes of contract roles fell through the floor in March, when the country went into lockdown because of coronavirus. That steep decline was unsurprising, perhaps
But what was unforeseen is that a household name in the financial sector whose reactions to contractors are almost always copied by the sector’s bedfellows, wasn’t this time around. Unusual, but welcome. Because the reaction this large bank had to covid-19 depressing its operations was to impose a furlough of its own on its contractors, effectively imposing on them no option (other than termination) to accept a much shorter, billable week.
The dog that didn't bark
So other than the official one from the government, ‘furlough’ is a bit of a red herring in this crisis. In fact, I’ve seen more contractor furloughs over any normal Christmas period than I’ve seen since the lockdown! Fortunately, that initial furlough by the household name was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. Any copycats were largely over and done with in the early days of March/April. For this crisis, then, furloughs were the dog that didn’t bark. Herrings, cats and dogs. Do ‘bear’ with me.
Nonetheless, contractors have still been bitten, clawed and mauled. Normally in a nationwide crisis, we recruiters would expect to see the contract market come back first, as clients usually tentatively dip their toes back into the resourcing water. But as I said at the outset, covid-19 is different. To everyone’s surprise (and to some people’s dismay) it’s the permanent resource that’s got the momentum, rising like a phoenix from the ashes.
Cause to celebrate
And while most hardcore contractors may initially view this as unwelcome, I would say, on the contrary, it bodes well. The less contractors in the market, the better – for you individually. It’s the simple law of supply and demand, and in a market that’s been over supplied in many areas, I actually celebrate the ‘perm renaissance.’ Your next rate, or your rate a few contracts down the line, will likely celebrate it too.
Generally when people ask me ‘how are contractors coping with covid?’, I’m sometimes tempted to say, ‘Very nicely, thank you very much.’ That’s not because demand is astounding; far from it. Rather, it’s more to do with these workers already being very flexible and already being very likely to have worked remotely before, and them then being given the apparent ‘pain’ of having to work flexibly or having to Work from Home (WfH). Or in the case of one contractor who I know, it’s ‘WfB’ – 'Work from Barbados.'
Thanks to the mini-heat wave we’ve had in the UK of late, I’d say even the mullet-sporting and grey-rooted among us would agree that what has amounted to a six-month pass to work totally on our own terms, and on our own turf, has been blissful. And despite’s covid’s best efforts, productive too!
The cloud on the horizon is private sector IR35 reform. We should all be in no doubt that the new off-payroll framework, timetabled from April 6th 2021, is here to stay. Even the most die-hard contractors have now come to terms with this. The chancellor Rishi Sunak has made it clear that everyone will have to pay their way (even if their way was being paid already), and what a massive bill it’s going to be. Anyone would think there’s a crisis on which the government needs to pay for. The truth is that it’s not all doom n’ gloom. There will be contract roles. There will be outside IR35 contract roles. And there will be premium rates on offer for those who fit (outside) the IR35 bill.
Skype versus a hot coals stroll
Like many I speak to, I’m inclined to hang onto some lessons that the crisis has taught me. Not even six months ago, most contractors (and clients for that matter) would have rather walked over hot coals than hop on a video call. Fast-forward today and it’s even part of the standard vocabulary.
The beauty of the ‘Zooms’ of this world is that the days of polishing up the interview shoes and dusting down the shoulder pads seem to be far behind us. As one contractor knows, just make sure you are only visible from the waist down! Faced with Teams and the like, many of us were pulled dragging and kicking at the start of covid-19 , but nonetheless as the months roll by everyone has got on board with the online meeting and even better, for our contractor fraternity, the online interview. With efficiency up and spirits lifted thanks to us increasingly finding out feet in this new normal, long may the Zoom revolution continue!
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