Is it a good time to go interim?

If you have experience of change management and an open mind, the interim market, which is on the up, could be for you.

It has been five years since the start of the global financial crisis, and the market for interim professionals has definitely been influenced by the turbulent markets. On the one hand, many businesses have relied more on contractors or temporary staff because they have not been able to justify permanent appointments; on the other, recruitment freezes and budget cuts have reduced the number of available vacancies.

According to the latest index issued by interim recruitment company Venn Group, the market for interim professionals is performing well. Although there was a slight decrease (4%) in overall vacancies during the second quarter of 2012, this is offset by a major upswing of 33% in the first quarter – and hiring levels for the year so far are up 14% overall.

Change management

In HR specifically, demand has remained steady and some recruiters have experienced an increase in vacancies in recent months. Employers are on the lookout for professionals with experience in dealing with change, according to Sundeep Bakshi, a director at Venn. The public sector, particularly in the NHS where there is a lot of structural change underway, is especially in need of candidates who have managed transformation projects in previous roles. “People who can demonstrate they have made savings, in both the private and public sectors, who can do restructures and turnarounds; these people do well,” he explains.

Terrie Hillier, for example, is currently an interim HR manager at an NHS foundation trust and has been an interim for five years. The level of change taking place in the NHS means that she has gained experience of everything from managing relationships with cleaning suppliers and their staff, to complex legal matters such as TUPE. “You have to be comfortable with the variety, which means really hitting the ground running, so a sharp focus is vital,” she says. Read more of Hillier’s story here.

Consultants report that rates tend to be better for assignments involving change, with HR professionals possessing these skills still able to command healthy day rates. Pay for more generalist roles has suffered slightly, especially in the public sector, says Steve White, head of the HR practice at interim recruiter VMA Group. “If someone comes in for a head of HR or business partner role, they tend now to be taken on under a fixed-term contract rather than paid a day rate, as this works out better financially for the employer,” he says. HR directors can command anything up to £700 or more per day, while rates for junior professionals or business partners are around £200 to £250, according to VMA’s latest figures.

What can you expect?

In short, HR professionals that can help organisations to do more with less, and provide a real return on investment, will do well as interims in the current climate. Seasoned interims report a better work-life balance and a sense of feeling in charge of their own destiny. So if you’re thinking of a move away from permanent work, what should you expect?

  • Financial uncertainty: “Build gaps into your financial planning,” advises White. While many successful interims go straight on to another assignment when one is finished, it’s not unusual to experience a few months out of work.
  • Lots of competition: “Lots of people will be going for the same job,” says Bakshi. “Standard skills are 10 a penny, so think about what niche skills you can offer.”
  • Pressure to deliver: “As an interim, every day is delivery day,” says Gareth Smith, a business manager with Hays. “You need to be able to build relationships with stakeholders quickly. You’ll find this easier if you’ve had broad experience with a number of employers.”
  • Freedom and flexibility: If you’re likely to be concerned about where the next pay cheque is coming from, then the interim lifestyle may not be for you. However, many successful interims build a financial buffer to enable them to enjoy periods without work, and enjoy an improvement in work-life balance compared with permanent roles.

Seeing as many of the roles available focus on change and transformation, organisations will be searching for seasoned interims who can show that they have managed difficult projects, and who are used to hitting the ground running. This means that breaking into your first assignment can be tough, but getting that experience on your CV will reap dividends. “You don’t need to specialise, as long as you have enough experience to walk into any organisation,” advises Smith. HR professionals that have worked in a number of sectors and managed change projects as part of those roles will have a head start, he believes.

Selling yourself

How you sell yourself is crucial. “Think about your unique selling point – have you worked in shared services, for example? You have to think of yourself as a business,” says White. It’s also important to show commitment to working as an interim professional, he adds. “Otherwise people might think you’re going to jump ship for a permanent role. Employers want to see a series of assignments.”

Social networks, in particular LinkedIn, can help raise your profile and build a network of relevant contacts. Join LinkedIn groups relevant to your sector, for interim HR professionals, and always be open to connections from recruiters. “Don’t wait to the end of your assignment to contact people, make sure you’re active on these networks throughout your assignments,” says White.

Moving into interim work certainly won’t be dull. Interims change roles frequently, so you’ll gain exposure to a wide variety of projects and organisations, which in turn will make you a more marketable candidate. The key to being a successful interim is to focus on what needs to be delivered, deliver it and gather evidence of your success. “If you can show you’re commercial, you’ll get snapped up fast. You need to show you can deliver change, rather than just business as usual,” says Smith.

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