Today’s worker-driven flexible workforce 70+ years in the making

In the beginning …

Anyone interested in the evolution of business with its dominant flexible workforce will probably have been told that the temporary staffing industry took off during the postwar economic boom in the United States.
Before the word entrepreneur had been invented, William Russell “Russ” Kelly began to employ housewives for part-time, temporary work in offices.

In 1947, he founded Russell Kelly Office Service (later known as Kelly Girl Services) in Detroit, with three employees, 12 customers and $848 in sales. Reportedly, Kelly Girls were unskilled, considered suitable only for menial tasks’ and in deference to a culture that preferred its women to perform unpaid work in the home, paid only ‘pin money’.

The idea took off.

This was unsurprising, since the advantages to the employer were crystal clear.

Relegated to the bottom of the business hierarchy, these ‘temps’ were offered only the most basic tasks and so required negligible training. Workers could be hired and fired on short notice; were exempt from recording procedures and attracted no entitlements.

When typing, shorthand and early office machines increased the value of these women, their pay and status went up – but hardly so you’d notice. So, businesses of all sorts were able to capitalise on the post war boom at the expense of their part time and temporary workers.

But often this quiet worker-led rebellion was driven by need.

In Australia – if not so much the US – this shift away from the traditional ‘one-job-for-one-man-for-life’ was often driven by dire personal need.

When Australia went into World War 11 it was a country that entered the fighting with a population of just on 7 million spread over its 7.741 million km² (2.989 million square miles).

So, when the men went to War from 1939 onwards, it was all hands to the pump. Women (and their older kids) took up jobs across commerce, industry, retail and rural business. When 1945 offered them respite from full time toil, many reverted to the cultural norm and returned to keeping house supported by wage-earning husbands.

But there were also a lot of women who wouldn’t – or couldn’t.

There were those who had lost their menfolk; even more with husbands damaged by life changing disabilities or illnesses like STD. Others whose wage earner could no longer earn due to the ravages of what we now call PTSD.

Some took to drink as a way of escape or simply walked out and deserted the responsibilities they now found too onerous to bear.

So, many women became the breadwinners for their families. They took whatever work was offered and would fit with their caring responsibilities. And were grateful for it. Then, as migrants and displaced persons – both men and women – came into the country in the 1950’s hungry to earn and willing to work ‘at anything’ – the gig economy was surreptitiously launched.

Irrevocably, that the need to survive was replaced by another: the urge to own mod cons.

The flexible workforce stayed loose, undocumented and pretty much ‘undercover’ until the mid-sixties when the Australian government repealed laws that had banned married woman from working in the public service.

That’s far more important than it sounds since in those days, you were either married or single. ‘Living in sin’ without a marriage licence was very poorly tolerated.

By then, the ravages of war were fading and part-timers worked less to support a family and more often to buy a new-fangled mod con like a fridge, car or washing machine! Women’s Lib pushed the envelope: jobs became more fluent but it would still be a long time until business principals offered any appreciable flexibility with job structures.

Business rulers took a long, long time to relinquish their powers.

It took considerable time – measured in decades – before inflexible, tradition-bound workplaces were pushed to accept that they needed to change. The old ways no longer accommodated a truly flexible workforce comprised of temporary, contract, freelance, casual and part-time workers who worked to live, not lived to work.

Office temps were by now a part of life. Contractors and freelancers had a foothold. But living that way without a regular income was made very difficult by a society that still considered anyone who worked flexibly as being ‘less’ than another individual in a ‘proper job’.

Only now, with the Australian workforce boasting the second highest percentage of temporary and part time workers anywhere in the world, are attitudes changing to embrace the concept of a genuinely flexible workforce.

But what exactly is this flexible workforce?

Margaret Rouse on What.Is.com explains it this way: “A flexible workforce is one that grows in number to meet needs at any given time and falls back to a baseline number when the increased size is no longer necessary.

That capacity is enabled by keeping the number of full-time employees to a minimum and hiring temporary, part-time, freelance and contract workers when required to meet demands.

For the employer, the major benefit of the flexible workforce is lower payroll and other employee-related costs. Another positive aspect is the ability to select talent from a pool of available workers whose skill sets match those required for a given project.

The hirer might also be able to afford a high-level expert on a short contract who would be too expensive to have on staff. On the other hand, it can be difficult to access talent with specific expertise when needed, and the business runs the risk of being caught out in emergencies.

From the worker’s perspective, temporary or part-time employment is part and parcel of the ongoing trend to a gig economy.

Ideally, the model is powered by independent workers selecting jobs that they’re interested in, rather than one in which people are forced into a position where, unable to attain employment, they pick up whatever temporary gigs they can land.” Source: http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/flexible-workforce

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