Contingent Knowledge Worker Challenges

By Redpath, Lindsay; Hurst, Deborah et al. | Human Resource Planning, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Contingent Knowledge Worker Challenges


Redpath, Lindsay, Hurst, Deborah, Devine, Kay, Human Resource Planning


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The use of contingent workers has become a part of many organizations' business models, and is likely to continue. This empirical study of skilled knowledge contingent workers follows David's (2005) conceptual article, which called for an examination of skilled contingent workers. As such, it examines the advantages and disadvantages of such work arrangements in light of the employer and of the employee. Findings suggest that employment uncertainty presents difficulties for skilled contingent knowledge workers in planning and managing their careers, even when they have skills valued by employers and choose to accept term appointments. Managers clearly benefit from hiring contingent knowledge workers, but face numerous challenges in managing these types of relationships. Suggestions are provided on how to address the needs of both managers and workers.

Contingent employment has continued over the past 25 years, and although declining recently in the United States and the United Kingdom (Biggs, 2006; Morris & Vekker, 2001), has remained constant in Canada (Allan, 2002; Connelly & Gallagher, 2004). More importantly, the use of contingent workers has become a fundamental part of the business model in some organizations, as it allows employers to expand and contract their workforce in response to workflow variations (Owens, 2006). Some argue that this deviates from the traditional employment model (Barker & Christensen, 1998), but contingent work arrangements are expected to continue. This article empirically explores how contingent work affects highly skilled contingent knowledge workers (CKWs) and their employers.

Background Literature

Contingent, or nonstandard, employment is a category of the workforce that includes those who do not have "explicit (i.e., formal, clearly defined and communicated agreements) or implicit (i.e., an understanding between employees and employers but not formalized through a written agreement) contracts to stay with an organization for an indefinite period of time" (David, 2005). In the United States, organizations tend not to use employment contracts or term full-time employment as "permanent" because technically employment is considered "at will"--the most often used designation is "regular employee." Using the Bureau of Labor Statistic's broadest measure of contingency, there were 5.7 million contingent employees in the United States, or about 4 percent of the total employment population in 2005. Comparatively, in the United Kingdom, 7 percent of all workers were considered to be contingent employees; in Canada, the number has fluctuated around 11 percent (Vosko, et al., 2003). Although contingent employees constitute a minor portion of the employed population, their contributions are critical to various companies (David, 2005; Payette, 1998).

Little is known about CKWs. David's (2005) article offers a conceptual model of the use of skilled contingent workers and their impact on regular employees and their organizations, but stops short of testing the model with data. The goal of this article is to build on David's (2005) work by presenting the findings of an empirical study involving CKWs and their managers.

Research Questions

Generally, contingent work is associated with employment relationships that are transactional (Rousseau, 1990, 1995), thus limiting employee engagement to the firm for which they are working. They provide their skills for a monetary reward, but do not become attached to the organization because their tenure is temporary. This may produce an "us and them" mentality (Chambel & Castanheira, 2005), which, for employers, may thwart their efforts to retain and engage the well-performing CKWs. Likewise for the CKWs, their level of engagement may be limited, thus resulting in less discretionary effort provided to a position (Frank, et al., 2004). The first question of the study was to look at whether or not a lack of engagement can be overcome. …

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