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human resources

Lisa F. Young

Preparations are well advanced: delegates from around the world are planning their journeys to London and the organizers are finalizing the program.

The big event takes place at the end of May – the first time the Ciett World Employment Conference has taken place in the U.K. Billed as the only truly global recruitment conference, it has been drawn to the country partly by the aura created by the forthcoming Olympics. The conference takes place in London from May 23 to 25.

At the helm is Denis Pennel, managing director of Ciett, the Brussels-based international confederation of private employment agencies, a position that gives him the broadest perspective on workplace trends – and he has clear views on where they are heading.

"We think permanent employment will decrease," he says, "but agents advising staff and acting as contractors will increase. Intermediaries are more and more involved in employment."

These ideas form the cornerstone of what he sees as a return "to the days of guilds and crafts," in which third-party institutions took care of staff, their training and defended their rights.

"Free agents, or self-employed people, are already a big proportion of the work force – and it will increase. Trade unions still look at the wage-earner relationship between worker and company and they complain of less direct employment. But change happened in the 1980s and 1990s with an increase in temporary and fixed-term contracts," says Mr. Pennel.

He sees the future as the self-employed worker, individually responsible for their own work: "They will have work to do but with several different employers. It is like going back to the pre-industrial period of home-working, and doing one thing but for lots of different people.

"Technology enables this. It means people can be based anywhere and gives organizations access to global expertise.

"The key words are freedom and choice. We are all consumers today and we can now consume work – do it where you want, when you want. I'm not saying everyone should be working like this but third parties – recruiters – are here to broaden the range of work solutions."

He sees online social networking as the great enabler, creating a "community" of contributors rather than a traditional "company." The recruitment sector has a vital role in managing the relationships and the intricate legal and contractual complexities that will arise.

The recruitment industry is "all about matching supply and demand for labour," Mr. Pennel says. "There are more diverse skills and expectations today, and human resources will be individualized in future – no more one-size-fits-all policies.

"Individuals will be choosing who they want to work for and the third-party intermediaries will look at skills, soft skills and personalities in matching supply and demand. So recruiters can become HR departments." He says they already are to a large extent.

In order to accommodate this fragmentation of the workplace and avoid the danger of exploitation, he says there is a need to rebuild the social contract: "Today, lots of rights and protections and services come with your employment – pensions, health scheme and so on. But as soon as you leave your job you lose them.

"So we need to reorganize so that whatever your status or your job, you can still keep your rights – not lose them when you change employer. Portability of work is the future, with rights attached to an individual, not their employment.

"In France, we have individual rights for training. Rights are attached to a person and can be carried from job to job – training schemes travel with the individual."

He says the same could be applied to pensions and other benefits, with recruitment firms playing a leading role as facilitators and providers.

Looking more broadly at the current employment market, he has similarly clear views on the question of talent shortages.

"There are talent shortages because educational systems are failing," he argues. "Too many youngsters leave without being able to read and write and do basic math. Today, even the most basic job requires computer skills, which needs reading and basic math. Ten or 20 years ago you could have survived in work without reading or math – but not now.

"Also, we keep training people for jobs that no longer exist – for example, psychology degrees – these are not what companies are looking for. The world of education needs to be closer to the world of business.

"Business wants experience but at the same time is less willing to invest in people. Companies can't afford to train people for six months – so they want exact skills and precise experience for the job on offer."

Mr. Pennel see this as another area in which recruitment organizations can become involved, as they have access to a large pool of talent.

He is a supporter of apprenticeships and suggests some of Germany's economic success could be down to the combination of classroom and company learning – not just in car-making and engineering but also services.

"Apprenticeships are pragmatic," he says, "starting on low wages while training but also working – so it's cheap. If you have an apprentice contract for, say, two years, you have a very good chance of being hired at the end of it if you're OK. It's a good way to enter the world of work.

"Which is important, because young people don't know how to enter the job market. But they are used to using services – so why not use a recruitment service to get into work?

"Companies can't develop apprenticeships just for the one or two people they want. You need 20 or 30 in a classroom – not necessarily from the same company. So a third party can set up the programs for training and find the people and companies and so on.

"Recruitment firms can manage this process – it's a question of scale and knowing what the market wants and the details of supply and demand on a local basis."