Brian Soffe, a seasoned IT professional, has had seven jobs in seven years. Some of these appointments have lasted for well over a year, while others have ended after just a few months.
They have included stints at Interflora, the flower delivery network, two UK housing associations, water regulator Ofwat, and a leading wine distributor. At present, he is three months into a 20-month restructuring project at the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF).
Being an interim IT director is how Mr Soffe likes it. He is just one member of a 20,000-strong “talent bank” of senior managers on the books of Executives Online, a recruitment consultancy that counts BMW, Nestlé and Powergen among its clients.
Having worked in a succession of permanent IT roles from his mid-20s to his early 50s, Mr Soffe now prefers the variety and flexibility offered by short-term, temporary employment: “I get a real buzz out of change. I actively enjoy going into an unfamiliar company and quickly getting to grips with its IT challenges,” he says.
“There’s a big emphasis on delivery with short-term appointments, because you’ve got a finite period of time to get the job done. And there’s always company politics to be aware of, so you need to be something of a diplomat.”
But it’s not just senior-level staff who are opting for short-term appointments over permanent positions. Increasingly, IT skills are available for short-term hire at all levels, according to Matt Gascoigne, IT senior recruitment manager at Badenoch & Clark.
“We see strong, steady demand for short-term skills in a number of areas,” he says. “In particular, our clients often need to draft in programmers with Java and .Net skills, or qualified desktop and network support staff. They may only need these people for a few days, because someone’s off sick, or they need a few extra hands on deck to finish a big project, or they’re upgrading a specific piece of infrastructure.”
For many IT workers, the decision to work on a short-term basis is a “lifestyle choice”, he adds. But it’s not just a matter of variety and flexibility – the financial rewards can be attractive, too.
“Of course, you give up benefits such as pensions and bonuses, and there’s less stability, but generally speaking, short-term IT workers are paid a very attractive rate in order to compensate for that,” he says.
And with no signs of the IT skills shortage abating, he says, those with the right blend of technical and “people” skills can realistically plan to be in almost continual employment, with very little, if any, downtime on their hands.
In fact, at any one time, about 7 per cent of the total IT workforce is working on a temporary basis estimates Dave Pye, chief executive of recruitment company Highams Systems Services Group. In the financial services sector, he says the proportion is far higher, with about a third of IT workers on temporary contract.
“Clients know they’ll have to pay more for these staff on a daily basis, but if that fills a gap for them, then they’re prepared to foot the bill as part of the overall cost of a project,” he says. For the most senior interim IT staff, he says, large banks and insurance companies will pay up to £1,000 a day.
The short-term employment opportunity is not limited to in-house IT departments. Many large computer services companies face a similar skills challenge and regularly draft in contractors to work within their teams on client projects.
IT recruitment specialist Computer People, for example, regularly provides staff to systems integrator Computacenter when its clients need to access IT skills at very short notice.
“Companies such as Computacenter work on very thin margins and need to keep utilisation rates for their permanent consultants at 90 per cent or more in order to maximise billable hours,” explains Simon Pettit, delivery director at Computer People, which is part of global recruitment giant Adecco Group.
“In order to cope with peaks and troughs in client demand, they need access to a virtual pool of talent, and that’s what we provide. If a client needs a team of 12 software development professionals to go into a client’s premises at the weekend to upgrade a bit of software, we’ll help them find them – even if the call comes in late on a Friday afternoon,” he says.
Recent start-up Orderwork is also focusing on supplying IT services providers with access to short-term skills through its online marketplace. Established in June 2006, the company filled 11,000 short-term vacancies in its first year of business, and is now experiencing a steady run-rate of between 1,000 and 2,000 vacancies a month, according to chief executive Neil Bradford.
The company’s 1,300 clients, meanwhile, include small consultancy firms throughout the UK, as well as major IT retailers such as Dixons and Ebuyer.com.
The beauty of the Orderwork approach, he says, is that the company’s pool of available talent covers most areas of the UK. “This offers IT services providers a cost-effective way to deliver nationwide service without the need to hire permanent staff in the far-flung reaches of the Highlands and Islands, for example. Instead, a project can be fulfilled by one of the local contractors on our books,” he says.
Orderwork takes a 10 per cent fee of all work completed, with the remainder going to the contracted engineer. Candidates are thoroughly vetted before they can join Orderwork’s pool of IT skills and are rated by the client on each assignment they complete in order to maintain a high quality of service.
According to Mr Bradford, the successes that his firm has notched up so far strongly suggest that the so-called “crisis” in IT skills may not be as acute as many believe.
“There’s so much talk of crisis, but in fact, a little creative thinking can go a long way to accessing the skills that are out there. Whatever the project, there’s almost always someone who can help – it’s just a question of being able to identify and locate them,” he says.
Get alerts on Front page when a new story is published