IT contractors at risk of ‘Anywhere Job’ trend, more so thanks to covid-19

Six million jobs in the UK have been made “anywhere jobs” by covid-19 and home-working coming together, with no subsector more vulnerable to its roles going abroad than niche IT.

In fact, ‘Computer Programming, Consultancy & Related’ has the biggest industry share of such jobs -- 561,400, all of which can now be done remotely, offshore, “potentially for cheaper.”  

This definition of an Anywhere Job  -- as spelt out by the Tony Blair Institute which is behind these new figures and findings, also extends to the role being exportable to “equally skilled workers.”

'Replacement by an offshore worker'

Examples of Anywhere Jobs (‘AJs’) named in the thinktank’s new report include Software Developer, IT Technician/Support, Programmer/Developer, Web Developer/Designer.

But writing exclusively today for ContractorUK, a former services management consultant who worked in IT for 45 years, says quality and low cost aren’t guaranteed with ‘AJs’.

“I was never in the firing line for replacement by an offshore worker in my field, but I had several occasions where they were in place at the client,” begins IT veteran Alan Watts.

“Their quality, with one or two exceptions, was appalling, preferring to rewrite from scratch rather than correct errors and using two or three people for a role that only needed one.”

He continues: “[So] clients thought they were getting a cost-efficient resource whereas the reality was that the work was shoddy and inefficient and…[in the end], no longer cheaper”.

'Employers likely to persist with remote working infrastructure'

Since March 2020, the institute says coronavirus has “spurred a large-scale experiment in the ability to work remotely” and “having put in place the digital infrastructure to make remote working possible,” employers are “likely to persist with it”.

Motivators for employers to use ‘anywhere workers’ include lowering overheads, boosting productivity, hiring from a wider geography and keeping existing workers happy, given most want to keep working remotely “at least two to three days a week” once the pandemic passes.

But cost-cutting is the key motivator.

'Additional freelancers and contractors sought'

Specifically, the report cites the ONS finding 58% of businesses wishing to continue with increased homeworking want to do so to cut overheads, “including the cost of expensive office space.”

The upside of AJs is that post-pandemic, larger firms are likely to want to make labour a “variable cost” by using “additional freelancers and contractors,” the institute says, referring to a September 2020 McKinsey study.

Shown the thinktank’s report yesterday, the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) suggested Anywhere Jobs do appear to be a ‘double-edged sword’ for the already flexible workforce.

'More overseas opportunities for UK contractors'

The association’s director of policy Andy Chamberlain told ContractorUK: “If businesses decide more of their work can be done remotely anywhere in the world, this could create more overseas opportunities for the UK’s freelancers and contractors, who are adaptable, enterprising and already used to working remotely.

“At the same time, however, it also poses the risk that employees and the self-employed could find themselves exposed to and competing with a global workforce. This is less of a risk for place-based self-employed work – such as hairdressing, plumbing and other trades. But it could be a serious risk for white collar ‘anywhere’ work.”

Ominously for those trying to enter the workforce, gaining qualifications does not stop the holder’s role being susceptible to exporting. Quite the opposite.

'Reversal of trends'

“When looking at the skills composition of offshorable occupations, 48 per cent -- 2.8 million -- of those in AJs have a degree,” the report says.

“Indeed, one in five people educated to degree level or higher are working in an AJ. In an apparent reversal of the trends seen over recent decades, the technological transformation is putting highly skilled individuals in non-routine jobs at risk of being moved abroad or of facing greater competition from elsewhere.”

Similarly, a good pay rate isn’t a protection either.

On the contrary, “Anywhere Jobs tend to be better paid,” with a mean gross weekly pay of £641, compared to £524 of jobs not at risk from exporting.

'Where skill shortages persist'

Typically male and living in London or the South East, AJ-holders tend to be in sectors “where skills shortages persist,” or which have a high reliance on overseas workers  “for example, Indians in the IT sector.”

The report adds: “Most of the tasks [of an AJ] are completed on a computer and require a degree of technical, specialist or creative knowledge that makes them non-routine, meaning the work is typically done digitally and is not tied to a physical location.”

Given such identifiers of AJ-holders, the thinktank might as well just name ‘IT contractors’ outright as the workers most at risk of their work moving overseas, suggests Natalie Bowers, founder of niche financial staffing agency Bowers Partnership.

'The Sword of Damocles'

“Ask any contractor developer or tester in financial services and they will tell you in no uncertain terms that their profession has been cowering for over a decade from the Sword of Damocles that is the offshored or outsourced model,” she told ContractorUK.

“This ‘Anywhere Jobs’ phenomenon is not so much a big bang, more of a quiet drip drip drip -- that ends up forming into the likes of Lake Geneva in the end!

“But it’s not just the testers and developers who need to be potentially worried. I spoke to a Windows 10 Engineer last week. He’d been imaging thousands of laptops for a very well-known investment management firm on a one-year contract.

“Here’s the strange thing -- he was simply pressing keys on command from instructions received from India via WhatsApp! So the machines were actually being imaged from India.”

'Renew the social contract with flexible workers'

For the UK to benefit from Anywhere Jobs, the Tony Blair Institute says the government must enhance its attractiveness to mobile labour by strengthening support infrastructure; designing new forms of skills and (re)training, and invest in worker wellbeing/productivity.

The government must also ‘renew the social contract to support a more mobile, flexible world of work,’ the report recommends.

At IPSE, its policy director Mr Chamberlain couldn’t agree more. “When it comes to employees, government may be able to regulate against this [roles being exported] -- but for freelancers, this is more difficult.

“Instead, government must ensure the UK’s self-employed have the skills, infrastructure and support to compete in a truly global market,” he said, adding:

“As well as ensuring high-speed broadband and mobile coverage in all parts of the UK, the government should back freelancers to develop and maintain vital skills from business management to the digital skills they will need for the future.”

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Written by Simon Moore

Simon writes impartial news and engaging features for the contractor industry, covering, IR35, the loan charge and general tax and legislation.
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