The Australian Workforce and Productivity Commission reports that flexible workers now comprise over 40% of the Australian workforce. It is not only students or low-skilled service industry workers who are casual, but also employees of large organizations such as universities, hospitals and governments. This trend will continue as public institutions are deregulated.
For many Australians, flexible work has been perceived as undesirable. In the past two decades, for instance, reports have depicted casual work as an unattractive alternative to full-time work and evidence of a general decline in working conditions. Undoubtedly, casualization has hit many Australians hard, most notably low and unskilled workers, particularly those with low levels of training and from low socio-economic backgrounds.
Flexible work for others has been well and truly embraced, and this trend is likely to continue. In New Age and creative industries, many highly skilled workers see flexible work as an increasingly attractive alternative to full-time work. They have, for instance, adopted alternative modes of work, such as online and virtual work and the variety of tasks offered by casual work.
Training the Flexible Workforce
Managers and human resource departments have been slow to address the training needs of highly mobile and highly skilled flexible workers. Traditionally, flexible workers have missed out on the training that full-time workers receive. There are many reasons for this:
- Flexible work is seen as an attractive cost saving in labor and training.
- Flexible workers are perceived as having less organizational affiliation and, therefore, may use new skills elsewhere (the investment would be wasted).
- Flexible work is a solution to bloated bureaucracies, not as a serious investment in organizational growth.
So, what's the difference between training full-time workers in classic industrial-age nine to five jobs and training highly skilled flexible casual workers in the growing New Age industries?
It's about Projects Not Positions
The key difference between the traditional and New Age models is that flexible workers are employed on 'projects', not in 'positions'. Whether individuals or companies like it or not, flexible workers have more control over their time and access to work – particularly as they can jump online and find numerous projects around Australia and the world.
The result is that individuals will often commit to short but not long-term projects. They will work for a finite, sustained, intensive period of time. This is not the same as the industrial age model of work. Many tasks currently undertaken in nine to five jobs, for instance, will continue to be outsourced. This is the 'task not time' principle in action. Here are the five key characteristics of the new way of working in this post-industrial era.
1. Flexible Workers and the 70:20:10 Model
The 70:20:10 model of work will continue both to describe and revolutionize training. An industrial age system of education and employment sees study and work in a linear process. Young people study and then are employed. Linear models of training and flexible, project-based work are largely incompatible. This is because individuals both need to learn continuously while on the job and projects are usually short-lived.
The major challenge of this model for training providers is to equip individuals with necessary skills to complete project work. This is not the same as learning from a linear, cumulative, standardized curriculum from primary school to university. It is about learning skills to work with others, to use technology to adapt to change and to share creative skills.
- Individuals employed casually also need to be supported in training. It is not reasonable to expect the employer to pay for 'core skills', but a fair expectation for advanced knowledge.
- For instance, new versions of software are released continuously. To complete a creative project effectively, you as the employer could pay for online training videos to ensure your web designer is capable in a new version of SEO, web-development or content authoring package. It is just as likely that you will benefit by encouraging the technical specialist to identify training that is required for ongoing skills development. You win by having a better-designed project and the individual employed wins by being able to develop their skills in an on-the-job focus.
2. Multi-Projects and Flexible Work
Flexible workers will use new skills on other projects. Expect it!
Flexible workers are often committed to short-term projects. The key question, then, is "Why pay for training when the employee is likely to leave?" This is the paradox of knowledge work. To ensure you have individuals capable of delivering future projects, investment is necessary. But it is almost certain that they will leave with their skills to work on unrelated projects. There's not much you can do about it!
The answer is not to withdraw investment in training. Instead, the solution is to build dependable and flexible relationships with your casual workforce — often from a distance. Clearly described and defined projects and project roles are further mechanisms for ensuring a project both attracts good people and is successfully completed.
- To ensure you attract good quality flexible workers, invest time in defining projects and advertise projects in an interesting and attractive way.
- Write a clear description of the project with measurable outcomes incorporated into employment documentation.
- Create quantifiable and challenging project goals to stimulate creativity and teamwork.
3. Rapid Skills Upgrade
Rapid learning and knowledge acquisition are characteristic of highly intensive knowledge work, particularly when the rate of information generation is accelerating. While many organizations are increasingly reluctant to spend on training tools, it is likely that they will have to.
Skills are becoming obsolete and knowledge redundant at an accelerated rate. The result is that individuals are required to advance their knowledge and skills rapidly. Often, it is not the Human Resources department or management team that is best placed to identify skills and knowledge gaps, but the flexible worker.
- Training should relate to skills directly relevant to the project at hand. As knowledge and technology improves, individuals are likely to need constant upskilling.
- The major investment in training is often the tool itself. For instance, individuals building online courses require software that supports development. This software may require substantial financial investment with a minor investment in training (including time). This is unconventional for managers who perceive training as a direct knowledge transfer from provider to individual.
A recent client expressed concern over learning new software. "Are we going to have to learn new software every few months?", she asked. The answer is yes and no. Core programs and software are likely to remain consistent. Think of the upgrades to Microsoft Windows over the last decade, for instance. However, for the highly skilled, flexible workforce referred to in this article, the answer could be absolutely yes — new skills must be learnt continuously.
4. It Is 'Relationships' Not 'Retention' Strategies That Are Important
Flexible workers do not need to be 'retained' because labor relates to projects not time-in-attendance. Highly skilled workers are mobile. They will come and go from organizations. A significant employment issue now is aligning skills with projects. The result is that it is important for organizations to build and maintain relationships, not simply to incentivize staff with bonuses. 'Down Periods' are just as important for relationship building as 'On Periods'.
This is the opposite approach taken by many organizations. Employers often have a formal 'exit interview' that is as solemn as a death in the family. 'Exit interviews' are contrary to the ethos of flexible work. With a range of social media, such as LinkedIn, making it easier to stay in contact, it makes sense to invest in an ongoing relationship with short-term/flexible workers.
Describing the relationships between flexible workers and projects on a 'relationships' continuum can help. A 'strong' relationship exists when your organization is currently directly hiring casual workers on projects. A 'weak' (but important) relationship exists when the association is maintained after the project ends. The important thing is to build relationships with casual, flexible workers. You never know when they will be needed.
- Train full-time employees to maintain relationships with casual and flexible workers.
- Invite flexible workers to company training, especially when it is anticipated these individuals could be engaged for another project.
- For flexible workers that are in a 'strong' or 'weak' relationship, ask them to run training sessions for staff on specific skills.
- Encourage once-off training and development, even when these flexible workers are not directly employed.
5. Self-Directed Learning
Many Human Resources people believe that they have the responsibility for training staff. This belief is often informed by a 'command and control' management philosophy. This approach may work for low-skilled, dependent workers, but it won't work for independent, highly mobile workers. A major incentive for younger workers to stay on in positions, for instance, is employer-funded support for skills development.
Mobile, flexible workers engaged in short-term contracts are typically comfortable with self-directed learning. Instead of learning imposed from 'above', an increasing number of flexible workers are aware of the skills and knowledge that they want to develop. The good news is that investment in self-directed learning is the ultimate incentive for flexible workers.
- Flexible workers can and should be encouraged to identify their own training needs and be supported in nominating potential solutions.
- Monitor and maintain the relationship between new skills development and project productivity.
The knowledge economy continues to grow. Many employees and businesses, beyond cost cutting, will be caught flat-footed in making flexibility work for them. Many managers think that cutting training is a benefit of having a casual workforce. It is well documented that casual workers receive far less on-the-job training that full-time workers. However, this is a dated assumption. To improve productivity, new concepts of work need to be embraced and, along with it, new investments must be made in training flexible workers.
- ACTU (2012). Lives on Hold: Unlocking the Potential of Australia's Workforce, Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work in Australia, ACTU, Melbourne,
- AWPA (2013). Future Focus: 2013 National Workforce Development Strategy, Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency (AWPA), Canberra,
Dr. Brendan Moloney is a management consultant for Darlo Consulting, educational consultants specializing in instructional design and online learning. Contact Brendan via his web site at www.darloconsulting.com
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