Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Unemployment Of A Different Kind

Last month we were told that unemployment reached 2.4m and many now speculate that it will peak some time in 2010 at around 3m or more. There are some who believe that these figures do not tell the whole story and that the real unemployed figure is as high as 6m.

Certainly, I know of a whole raft of people who do not register and so do not figure in these numbers. Many are former executives in sales, marketing and general management as well as senior sales and marketing people, who have been left by the wayside of mainstream employment. Many, if not most, have created their own limited companies or sole trading units to ply their trade as contractors, ‘guns for hire’ or interims – mostly working on short term engagements and projects with specific end points or goals to be achieved. In reality, this is what I do. You can dress it up in fancy language, have a few ‘smoke and mirrors’ but my ‘new’ career is being hired by companies to do specific jobs on a short term basis which are 100% results orientated.

In these recessionary times, there are good benefits for companies to get access at short notice to a pool of highly experienced general skills which are flexible, adaptable and highly geared to results on a short or long term basis. There are no onerous employment laws to encounter, no long term selection processes, no costly recruitment fees and the remuneration can be easily geared to results – you pay as you go, you can ‘try before you buy’ and you pay for what you get. Equally, you can end the arrangement as and when you please without fear of costly grievance procedures or compromise agreements. On the face of it, this is very flexible for companies to put the power where it is required, when it is required, without incrementing headcount or taking on long term liabilities or paying more in terms of benefits like pension contributions or private health.

For me, it has certainly been an exciting time these last 3-4 years. It took a while to get going and there was a gap in between contracts in the middle but I have managed to make a decent living out of it and I have had the satisfaction of working with a diverse set of companies, focusing on delivering on a variety of goals and have has given me the buzz of really achieving.

Take Theorem Inc (, as an example. They are a dynamic digital marketing outsourcing company with an innovative model that had worked well for clients like Google and Digitus in the US. The CEO, Jay Kulkarni, wanted to launch his business in the UK and Europe and I worked with him to help set up that bridgehead and find highly talented people. They now have a London office serving Europe and are expanding off the back of new contracts wins in the UK and the Continent with some excellent, high profile new clients. Jay is very buoyant about the future and the partnership with me and this week we will be discussing potential ideas to expand the business through channels in Continental Europe. I am currently working with the UK manufacturer of Interactive Whiteboard solutions, Promethean Ltd (, and have helped them target and acquire new strategic partnerships in Europe which has directly contributed to their Southern European team having the largest quarter in their history and added more than €3m of new business in two partnerships alone in just around 16 weeks. That’s the sort of contract that really gets the adrenalin going. The last 5 weeks has seen a new relationship with anti-virus vendor, AVG (, get off to a great start also with 6 new major partnership potentials across Europe.

But it isn’t all rosy. One of the issues always is finding the next such client and I find that it means you burn the candle at both ends as once you have finished your day’s work with a current client you have to start work on prospecting for a new one. It means that my wife and I have not had a holiday for over two years – that’s par for the course. I find sleeping at night is not as easy as it is a constant worry as to where the next pound of revenue is coming from. My plight is the same for all those others who work the same way as I do. When we finish one contract and have a gap for the next, we do not register as unemployed – if the others are like me, I would be too proud for that and would rather pilfer my dwindling savings than become one of Gordon’s growing army, but in reality there are far more people who need the support of those payments than I do and I would rather people who really need it get access to the support than people in my position.

Would I change it? I am honestly not sure. In a way, the daily challenges are so variable and the things I can apply myself to so wide and interesting that I find the work far more stimulating than plain old employment. But I do miss several things. Camaraderie is one – I work mainly from home, on the road and am a worker of the digital age. There is an awful lot of international travel which can wear thin after a while because I get more crotchety about delays and not being able to be productive as every second counts in this kind of contractual work. If you are not delivering, you are of no use – and the old adage of ‘You are only as good as your last sale’ in this business simply does not translate – it is all about the here and now, and results.

My peace of mind and security says it would be great to be employed and have a straightforward package with all the trimmings and protection of the law. After all, I am now, like many of this growing band of flexible, contractual workers, closing in on 50 too fast for my own comfort. I know, no matter what the law says each day I am not employed as an employee going forward is likely to be another reason never to be employed directly again. As much as I would love that such prejudice does not exist against ‘more experienced’ individuals, it is the way of the world.

Some studies have shown that there are now two categories of ‘employed’ people – 1) those in full time employment as defined by the laws of employment and 2) contractors similar to me. The studies show that as time goes on, there will be greater difficulties and less protection for my types, while those currently full time employed will be effectively ‘there for life’. Also, if you are of a certain age and outside the full time employed zone, it less likely that you will ever get back in. Personally, I do have a sneaking feeling that talent will distill out in the end. If the recession has taught us one thing it is that you cannot rely on donkeys in your business and the focus on quality recruitment will come to the fore after successive years of commoditising one of the most important functions of any business – but is something I have bleated on about to companies for some time, even before the recession.

I have a suspicion also that as the markets bottom out and starts to show signs of recovery, a fast, experienced, adaptable and results-orientated workforce will be in greater demand, as it gives greater chance of ‘hitting the deck running’. I also think that companies will not easily forget the employment mistakes they have made in the past and start to think sensibly about the kinds of people they need and focus more stringently on higher quality recruitment processes rather than just getting volume and the lowest price. As always, the key priority will be skills shortages as the markets recover – we have heard it before so many times – with so many more people on the dole queue but not many possessing the kinds of skills companies require in the right geography.

This is where the growing pool of experienced, former executives can pay rich dividends. Over the past years, if there is one thing that this pool of readily available talent has proven time and again is that it can adapt to many different tasks and deliver by applying proven qualities and managerial experience. Direct technical or product or even market knowledge is of less importance if you have experienced the key problems companies have faced, applied you skills in a variety of situations and delivered for clients.

It’s why that, even though I am a born worrier, I know that I have been through a whole variety of situations including two major recessions, tremendous growth, started up several businesses and turned around an equal number across a wide variety of technologies, markets, geographies and disciplines, having managed teams and companies large and small and just myself. These are qualities, skills, values, disciplines and principles that many companies will be interested in the coming months. I still may not be able to take my holiday or sleep easy at night but at least I am confident that what I have will be in great demand.

I think a great many more in my situation should be equally as confident about the future.

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