What covid lockdown 3 means for our niche contractor recruitment firm

It didn’t pan out quite as it was forecast by my fellow agents, mainly due to the unforeseen introduction of ‘Tier 4’ covid restrictions, but the bounce back in temporary billings which staffing firms expected in early December more than came to pass for us and our contractors, writes Natalie Bowers of niche contractor jobs agency Bowers Partnership.

In fact, December 2020 was the busiest December our business has ever experienced – and I’ve been at this contractor recruitment game for 20 years!

Our 2021 outlook, upended

At the tail-end of the Christmas holiday, this record uptick made us optimistic for the New Year and convinced that it boded well for hiring activity in the rest of 2021. That was our feeling right up until England was plunged back into coronavirus lockdown – the third of its kind – on January 4th 2021.

Similarly deployed by the government to help stop the spread of covid-19, the first lockdown in March 2020 sent shudders down our commercial spine. Our agents watched in horror at the sight of our healthy job order book dissolving before our very eyes. Then, once we had abandoned the office ship for remote outposts, we braced ourselves for the 30% cull of working contractors. Which arrived, as expected, with military precision some four weeks in.

'Limited support'? For agencies, there's been no specific support at all

Fast-forward to this week when the third lockdown takes effect and Neil Carberry, the chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, spoke of the government needing to “address the position of small business owners who have had limited support throughout covid.” Contractors running their own limited company could have been on his mind, but I’m hopeful and pretty sure that us agencies were too.

After all, staffing firms took an overnight hammering back in March 2020 and spent the subsequent months with zero new business. There has been no specific support from the government for employment business between March 2020 and January 2021, despite us recruiters being a sizeable chunk of the UK economy -- with around 40,000 (mainly small and medium-sized) agencies. You’d think we might get given something, given we’re in the business of putting people into work.

Where contractors stepped in, and where contractors are right now

Once we got past the tumbleweeds when lockdown was officially lifted in July 2020, our excitement was hard to contain. It was sheer joy from even the most hard-nosed of our agents to see our first job order come in. We used that first, much-needed ray of sunshine to fix the roof above us in a different way – we revamped ourselves into a 100% remote operation and have now become a ‘work from anywhere’ company. Not on our own of course – we pulled in some technical favours from our contractors who made the transition pretty seamless. Thanks guys and girls.

But what of contractors today, as coronavirus lockdown number three begins with no end-date in sight? In the main, these freelance professionals are content; happy with the increase in working from home and satisfied with being static – few want to move assignment or jump ship at the moment. In this sense, covid has actually just accelerated a trend that was already underway -- ‘contract stability’ is now easily the top preference of work-seeking contractors. It used to be flexible working, and before that – rates.

Buyers barking up the wrong tree

On the fees front, contractors will be glad to hear that rates are holding up quite nicely. Rather predictably, some clients (wrongly) believe that the new lockdown means it is suddenly a ‘buyer’s market’ and are trying it on by low-balling IT contractor pay.

Yet we would say it’s actually a ‘seller’s market’ right now because we are still in a niche candidate-short environment.

In particular for contractors wanting to work with investment management and wealth management companies, Business Intelligence, Technical Business Analysts, Infrastructure, Cloud and Application/Technical Support are all in high demand.

Carrying on

Also positive is that clients in these rate-rich sectors are currently more than happy to hire from home and onboard from home. So lockdown 2.0 and now lockdown 3.0 is not the disturbance to high-end contracting that it might sound like. That said, with one in 50 people in England now infected with covid-19, we continue to be vigilant for our own personal safety as well as that of our contractors.

So while of course allowing for health and safety steps that seem sensible in a pandemic that is chalking up another shutdown, for UK contracting it’s more a case of ‘carry on regardless’ than ‘here we go again.’

Profile picture for user Natalie Bowers

Written by Natalie Bowers

Natalie is a co-founder of Bowers Partnership, an award-winning recruitment company that finds people for Investment Management, Wealth Management and Lloyd’s London Markets clients.
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