Pool position

The North East Wales Institute of Higher Education (Newi) has developed a system that delivers the same degree of flexibility as zero hours, without expecting too much of employees

Zero-hours contracts attracted much interest in the early 1990s as companies looked for ways of managing peaks and troughs in the demand for labour. But the promised benefits of this way of working did not always materialise and some organisations are now scaling down their use. Woolworth’s, for instance, at one time employed 25-30 per cent of shop staff on zero-hours contracts, but now uses them only when it suits both the company and the individuals concerned.

Employees on zero-hours contracts are not guaranteed any work but have to be available as and when an employer needs them. The trouble is that organisations using this system, while demanding total flexibility from employees, are often anything but flexible themselves. In some cases, people are expected to sit at home – unpaid – waiting for the phone to ring and to take whatever work is offered or run the risk of not being called again. It is hardly surprising that such practices have made the zero-hours concept unpopular with many employees.

But there are alternatives.

Newi is an associate college of the University of Wales offering full- and part-time courses at graduate and postgraduate level to around 4,500 students. It has undergone significant change over the past five years and now, as a self-governing organisation, its aim is to achieve its own degree-awarding powers and gain the title of University of Wales College, Wrexham. It is close to attaining these goals.

The many changes taking place in higher education mean that a more flexible and responsive workforce is needed. “Right people, right place, right time” is the common phrase that guides us, but achieving this consistently is a difficult task. With a fall in staff numbers, an increase in general workload, tighter deadlines and fluctuating work patterns, the reliance on administrative support at Newi was high. Requests for additional help became more frequent.

In the past Newi had met these additional administrative demands by using local employment agencies. Yet despite having the right qualifications, experience and skills, agency staff often proved unable to meet the needs of the school or department to which they were assigned.

This was for a number of reasons. Agency staff were often not knowledgeable enough about the IT software used at Newi. Most of them had worked in small businesses and did not understand the culture of a higher education organisation. And it was evident that agency temps did not show the same level of commitment as Newi staff.

Although we did not expect the same flexibility as we got from our own employees, difficulties sometimes arose when agency staff kept strictly to working hours. Managers also felt uncomfortable about giving them work of a confidential nature.

Although it did not cost Newi much more to bring in someone from an agency than to pay one of our own members of staff, the hourly rate that temps received was much lower than the amount we paid the agency. The trade unions, and indeed the institute, were not happy that people doing the same work as our employees should be on a lower rate of pay.

To resolve these problems, I believed that it would be useful to have a group of stand-by personnel who would be able to come in as and when they were needed and fulfil short-, medium- and long-term requirements. They would be employed on temporary contracts directly by the institute, rather than by a middleman. I was convinced that to attract a pool of people with the right skills, knowledge and experience it was important to create a “special team” feeling and build a relationship with each person. That way we could get to know their capabilities, interests and personal circumstances, and so use the pool to full effect.

We decided that it should have up to 20 members, so that when any individuals were not available we could always call on others. All pool members would have the right to refuse work and would be assured that if they did, it would not be held against them as far as future offers of work were concerned. This approach was crucial. After all, we expected the pool members to be flexible and it was only fair that we should be flexible in return. In any case, removing people from the pool for non-availability would have meant that we would constantly have had to recruit new members.

We recognised that members should be free to seek alternative work when Newi had none available. Again, fairness was the key, though in practical terms, too, it did not seem necessary to tie stand-by personnel exclusively to the pool. Any additional work they could find in other organisations would keep their skills sharp and deepen their knowledge.

Another critical element in managing the pool was to pinpoint the skills and experience needed for the work available and then identify those pool members able to carry it out. The aim was to give people as much notice as possible that work was available – and so increase our chances of getting the person we wanted for each assignment.

The posts on offer were at basic administrative level, designated grade 2 on the institute’s pay scale. But where a member of the pool would be providing direct cover for a permanent member of staff – in cases of long-term sick leave or maternity leave, for example – they would receive the going rate for the job. We also decided that members of the pool should receive the same benefits as permanent full- and part-time employees, including holiday entitlement and the opportunity to join a pension scheme.

When it came to vacancies for permanent jobs within the institute, members of the pool would be treated as internal candidates. In addition, they would be given opportunities for training and other non-contractual benefits.

The local JobCentre initially refused to run our advertisement for stand-by staff, because we were not offering a precise post or contract. So I identified some of the administrative work available and added details about the pool to ensure that nobody who applied would be under any illusions about the scheme. The first advertisement, which asked for people to cover all aspects of administrative, clerical and secretarial work, generated a phenomenal response. The number of applicants was higher than for any other vacancies we had advertised in recent years.

The advertisement attracted interest from a range of respondents, including long-term unemployed people, women returning from a career break, retired people looking for additional income, and those interested in changing careers. Most of the applicants were women. The available places in the pool were easily filled and a broad base of skills and experience established.

Four years on, the pool is an important part of our resource. Several of its members have now become permanent employees, and some hold key administrative positions. Others have found jobs in other organisations, and describe the arrangement as a good stepping stone that helped them to develop their skills, or gave them the additional experience they needed to find permanent positions.

One pool member now in permanent employment is Irene Hughes, administrator in the busy estates department.

office. “I wasn’t looking for full-time work at first, just occasional work,” she says. “I was given a clear outline of the arrangement and thought it sounded very interesting.” Hughes was offered a number of short-term work positions that she filled efficiently, quickly settling into the organisation.

Comparing her experience as a pool member with temping for an agency, she says: “Outside agencies don’t have the same personal touch. I was made to feel welcome at Newi and accepted as part of the team straight away.

“I enjoyed the work enough to want to go full-time and permanent. My personal circumstances changed, and when the right opportunity arose I went for it.”

Had Hughes not been part of the pool, it is unlikely that she would have been offered an opportunity to apply for an internal vacancy, and Newi would have missed out on a competent and experienced member of staff.

Another permanent employee from the pool is Gerry Beer, administrator to the head of the school of science and technology. When looking to return to work after bringing up her children, she found few employers willing to offer her the flexibility she needed.

“The pool seemed ideal for me,” Beer says. “When I was offered work I could negotiate my hours to suit my personal circumstances.”

The difference between our scheme and the zero-hours system is clear. By offering flexibility with a personal touch the scheme has achieved success for both the organisation and the individuals involved. The reputation of the pool has grown as its members deliver consistently high-quality services. In subsequent recruitment drives, we have looked for people with the skills to cover areas other than administration for which it has proved difficult to find staff or where urgent cover has been needed. These include catering, finance and the institute’s workplace nursery.

Pool members who have worked throughout the organisation are regarded by managers as a valuable part of the team. In the face of mounting workloads and tight deadlines, it is invaluable to have someone who knows the organisation, has the required skills, fits into our team and is paid the same rate as permanent staff to do a good job.

Colin Grethè is senior personnel manager at the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education