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Fun, fulfilment and the free worker

Long gone are the days when a pension was enough to make employees remain loyal to one company for all or most of their working lives. A report from the Industrial Society confirms something that the construction industry has known for a long time - jobs for life are a thing of the past. It also reinforces one of this section's recent observations - that a growing number of engineers are now working freelance as a career choice rather than as a stop-gap.

The report, Most wanted: the quiet birth of the free worker, claims that an increasingly powerful group of individuals ('free workers') are emerging in British industry and revolutionising the employment contract - 'demanding fun, fulfilment and mutually compatible ethical values from their employers, as well as substantial pay packets'.

It describes 'free workers' as the 'expert pollen of the new economy, moving quickly between jobs and assignments, transferring ideas, skills and attitudes'.

'Free workers know that companies need them more than they need companies, ' says the report's author John Knell.

'They are looking for a higher return on their contribution and getting it, ' he adds.

Already, says Knell, only 28 per cent of employees are sufficiently attached to their organisations to turn down another job if it offered higher pay, and 93 per cent of managers do not trust their employers to look after their career interests.

Free workers are independent, the reports states, but not individualistic: 'they distrust structures but depend on networks'.

Michael Starr, personnel director for consultant Halcrow, says that this distrust, characterised by an increasing suspicion of authority, is 'very much spirit of the age'. He remarks, nevertheless, that his firm is probably increasing the number of short term contracts it is issuing to employees.

'We've have a steady stream of short term contract staff at most levels, ' he says. 'We regularly bring in specialists, particularly if we're not sure there will be a long term vacancy once a contract is finished, and as a firm we have just brought in a management consultant to help face a number of changes on the horizon.'

In civil engineering, Starr adds, specialists are often brought in on a short term basis and it works to the advantage of both parties.

'Many engineers now see freelancing as a permanent option, ' agrees Mark Swain, Anders Elite's national business manager.

'And with many companies having turned their backs on specialist staff since the 1990s, they're now readily employing the skills of say CAD staff, design engineers and project engineers on a freelance basis.'

Many of these staff are now beginning to realise their true worth and are starting to call the shots when it comes to working practice. Company loyalty, in the traditional sense, is an obvious casualty of this.

According to the Industrial Society report, a number of key trends in employment contracts have been prompted by the demands of free workers.

They include an increase in individual contracts and restrictive intellectual property clauses, and a growing demand from potential employees for equity in companies.

In addition, several large firms are now experimenting with their own venture capital funds and business incubation activities to back existing employees' ideas.

The rise of the free worker has so far attracted little attention from employers or policy makers, despite having a profound impact on the relationship between companies and employees.

'Free workers are unleashing a whole range of policy implications for government and labour market institutions, ' says Knell.

'Our politicians and policy makers must stop promising the public a future of security and certainty that does not exist, and concentrate on creating an inclusive work culture, ' he adds.

Key points

28% of employees would not turn down a better paid job

Free workers are already revolutionising employment contracts

Free workers move quickly between jobs, transferring ideas and attitudes

Freelancing is already seen as a permanent option in the construction industry

Employers have paid little attention to the rise of the free worker

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