CUK Reader Awards: IT contracting in 2011

The votes have been counted, the nominations verified, so the very best - and worst - of an eventful 12 months in IT contracting can now be revealed by Contractor UK.

In a year that saw the debut of the AWR - ‘the biggest shake-up to temp recruitment’; a new approach to divisive IR35 and the return of ‘take it or leave’ rate cuts, CUK is proud to find its readers showed resilience.

In fact, asked in CUK’s annual poll about the impact of what one called the UK’s “stumbling recovery”, more than seven out of ten respondents said they were unscathed, having been on-contract for 75% of the year or longer.

Put another way, nearly half (45%) of the responding contractors were unaffected by the fragile economy in 2011 (saying they were “barely out of” contract), while 28% saw “some impact” - yet were still engaged for three of the year’s four quarters.

The contractors’ replies to a seemingly unrelated follow-up question in the poll – ‘How many years contracting experience do you have?,’ may offer an explanation as to their resourcefulness.

They show the CUK poll respondents have clocked up an impressive total of 3,700 years contracting experience between them. Fifty-nine per cent have been contracting for five years or more, including a handful who have been at it for a back-crunching 40 years.

This wealth of experience - and suggested know-how at finding freelance computer work, is not to suggest that the temporary IT jobs market is dry of young blood, however.

According to the poll, hosted on CUK in December, more than a quarter (26%) of the contractors who answered Question 12 began IT contracting within the past 24 months.

The implied influx of newcomers will delight the horde of IT contractor service providers – such as recruiters, accountants and pay roll providers, who, like last year, have once again jostled for the CUK readers’ vote.

To this end, champagne corks might be heard popping at Computer People, part of the Adecco group, as it has improved on its second place (in the previous CUK awards) to scoop ‘Best Recruitment Agency’ of 2011.

Although convincing, the win for Sid Barnes and his “contractor-focused” team was opposed by a chunk of contractors backing Hays IT, the category runner-up, praised for its efficient agents and payment system.

The FTSE-listed firm narrowly took the silver medal over Capita, deserving of bronze, applauded by the CUK readers for its agents’ supportive approach and their marketplace nous, “even [on] IR35.”

Elsewhere in the agency category, a diverse pool of IT contracts; being proactive with the new roles and negotiating successfully for the candidate were compliments awarded, respectively, to Hudson, Elan and Harvey Nash. Lorien also drew praise for being a ‘hassle-free’ recruiter that pays on time, as did Spring.

All these qualities that the IT contractors said they appreciated in a recruiter, although somewhat timeless, appear to have had an edge in 2011.

Asked in CUK’s poll to identify the “biggest hindrance to contracting” over the last 12 months, the contractors’ preferred response was “lack of contracts” or “lack of lucrative contracts.”

Voiced by almost a fifth (17%) of the freelance respondents, the dearth of IT work, or well-paid work, is regarded as a bigger obstacle than “the economy/the slow recovery.”

Cutbacks to projects are the third most common barrier to contractors, the poll also found, notably in the public sector, ahead of clients imposing “mid-contract rate reduction[s]” or “take it or leave pay cuts.”

A Contractor UK spokesman reflected: “The fear of a double-dip [recession]; budget cutbacks…even the eurozone crisis, are chief among the reasons IT contractors felt hindered [in 2011].

“A lack of both contracts and well-paid contracts is the main factor however, with rate deductions not helping. These issues look set to play out further in 2012, so it could be a tough time ahead, and not just for the economy.”

Almost on cue, the Nationwide Building Society announced it will cut pay for IT contractors by 10% from this month (January 2012), with refusal to accept leading to termination, shows the latest list of contract-breakers kept by egos.

HSBC handed its IT contractors a similar proposition in mid-December, also according to the lawyer's list, mirroring the ‘take it or leave’ pay cuts recently put in place by Nomura, RBS, Lloyds, Barclays Capital, UBS, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. 

HSBC is unique in this set though in that, despite downgrading contractors’ rates, it is the ‘Best Client’ of 2011 in the eyes of CUK readers.

Indeed, banks as a group received more votes than any other type of end-user, with RBS, Lloyds and Barclays each vocally recommended as a client by the contractor sample. The still comparatively high daily rates the banks offer were cited.

A wider selection of company names that are better--known for their immediate ties to IT contractors emerged in the nominations for ‘Best Accountant,’ although last year’s two runners-up, who fit such a profile, lost out.

That partly owes to competition from the long list of accountants individually named (more than 90 separate practitioners were nominated in the ‘Other’ category) and partly to new, first-time entrants specialising in contractors’ tax affairs.

InTouch Contractor Accounting, for example, has entered the ranks to occupy a respectable fourth place; Capital City Accountancy usurped one of the previous runners-up to steal third while another newcomer, PayStream, took second.

But the most backing by contractors of a single accountant is overwhelmingly for SJD Accountancy, the chartered firm that has held the title of ‘Best Accountant’ every year since winning it in the inaugural awards of 2006.

The next vote CUK readers were invited to cast, for ‘Best Umbrella’ company, was not as competitive, overall, though emerged as equally fierce among its top nominees.

The previous winner of the category, Giant group, commanded a healthy percentage of the contractors’ favour – affording it third place for 2011, behind PayStream, again, in second place.

With ‘Other’ umbrella companies currying only a small volume of support, the remaining votes went to Contractor Umbrella, the category winner for 2011.

Not quite as definitive, yet still a clear winner emerged in the lighter side of contracting: asked to name forum personality of 2011, the CUK sample responded: ‘northernladuk.’ 

Appreciated for his “harsh but fair” comments to ‘newbies’ unfamiliar with CUK policy, or who post questions before searching for answers, he takes the title off malvolio, voted for as the forum’s second favourite of 2011.  

In the category for ‘Most Entertaining Forum’ thread, won again by ‘test please delete’, both the CUK regulars were affectionately noted for making others rethink, each in their inimitable way.

CUK will no doubt toy with a rethink too if it is to find out who is the third most popular member of its online community. Other than ‘mal’ and ‘northern’, when readers were simply asked to identify the best “Forum Personality,’ they selflessly obliged - “Me.”     

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