Free and easy

Using freelance design staff can be a good solution to ensuring that your business is as flexible and efficient as possible.

Graphic designers: Average £26 per hour (£14 to £35)
Web designers: Average £30 per hour (£21 to £40)
Artworkers, typesetters: Average £23 per hour (£20 to £28)

If your design company needs staff, perhaps it’s time to consider the freelance option. The freelance design sector is currently bustling, and despite concerns about the future business climate, demand for staff is still more buoyant than ever. If anything, the long-standing shortage of skilled creative staff remains a bigger problem. There are simply not enough good consultancy people to meet the demand.

Every design business, according to the experts, should consider using a base of temporary staff to make it easier to adapt to the flow of work. A degree of flexibility in your staffing levels means you can grow instantly during the busy periods, and more importantly, that you can contract without resorting to the axe. It’s a timely message if ever there was one, especially if you work with dotcoms.

According to Ian Coulson of BDG Recruitment, “Demand for freelance cover is still very high within the creative industry. It has seen a steady rise over the last couple of years and 2001 has seen it maintain its strength, with demand in January being exceptionally high.”

Workstation Solutions freelance divisional manager, Charlotte Stokes, agrees: “While January and February usually tend to be quieter months for freelancing within the industry, we are finding that demand is still high.”

However, others working close to the sector suggest there has been a slight easing in demand. “I think the expansion reached its peak in the middle of last year,” says Victoria Lubbock, managing director of Recruit Media, which specialises in shortand long-term freelance staff for print and digital media design. “Now design consultancies are starting to cut back a little on freelance staff,” she says, but by no means alarmingly.

Most of the major design groups use a freelance base, according to Amanda Merron of accountant Willott Kingston Smith & Associates. WKS regularly monitors the business activity of a top 30 core of design businesses.

In her experience, the use of freelance staff has been increasing over recent years, which is good news for the well-being of consultancies. “I think people have used more freelances to deal with some of the recent growth,” Merron explains. “It is important to have a base of freelance staff for flexibility, particularly at moments like the present,” she adds.

As a note of caution she also re-iterates her findings that wage inflation in design consultancies is going up faster than the increase in prices charged to clients. Merron points out that this mismatch of wage costs is not sustainable.

The theory goes that during slower periods of business, staffing levels can be reduced without cutting jobs. It could also be argued that as a freelance designer earns a premium over a full-time employee doing the same role, the bonus is merited by the long-term risk.

But Steve Potts, former associate director of Fitch, and now head of creative consulting at e-business group Rubus, points out that the freelance pool theory cannot always be applied, especially if your group needs specialist design skills, or works on a less project-based basis.

“At Fitch we used freelances quite a bit,” says Potts. “I would say between 5 and 10 per cent of the available people in the business were contract-based. That was a very deliberate move so that the business could expand and contract very rapidly if it needed too.”

Rubus did not enjoy any such luxury when it was forced to cut its workforce before Christmas, due to a slowdown in demand for e-business projects. “Rubus hasn’t used that much freelance support in the design area,” explains Potts. “The team is small enough right now that it is self-sustaining. I think going forward we will probably use freelances more than we have in the past. But because of the working style that we have and the complexity of the kind of consultancy work that Rubus does, as opposed to that of a more traditional design consultancy, it made better sense to hire people and train them specifically to do what we wanted them to do.”

And this is clearly one of the considerations that prevents some consultancies from relying on freelance support. As Merron says, “The only thing to bear in mind if you are hiring freelance staff is that you’re not building that skill within your business.”

The main advantages of using freelance staff – flexibility, instant availability and finding specialist skills – are offset by the challenge of instilling loyalty, working practices and, of course, the extra cost to the coffers of a freelance employee. As an individual, very good money can be earned relative to your full-time colleagues, if you can keep demand for your skills high. You can also get a very broad range of experience, adds Lubbock.

“From an individual point of view, you can earn quite a lot more as a freelance, providing you work all the time,” she says. “But then the nature of freelance work tends to be one of feast or famine.” Freelances should also factor in costs such as keeping your software skills up to date, she suggests.

The arguments about freelance staff not bothering to invest in their employer holds little water with Lubbock. “Freelances have as much interest in looking after their future with an employer as full-timers do, if they are thinking professionally,” she says. But she acknowledges that there are those who take their freelance work seriously as a career, and those who don’t.

“You can divide freelances into two types: the ones that just ‘do a job’ and the ones that treat their career as if they were running their own business,” she says.

The recruitment agencies all maintain that they are only interested in those with a proven professional approach, but then they would say that wouldn’t they. Recruit Media has also addressed the loyalty issue by running an Air Miles loyalty scheme, which the company itself pays for, as an incentive to its most hard-working freelance designers.

So what do you do if you are looking for freelance help? You can ask around, advertise, or go to an employment agency. If you choose the agency option, and bear in mind that you will pay a premium of at least 20 per cent for the service, it’s probably best to choose one on recommendation. Recruitment agencies are up front about whether or not they deal in the temporary staff market. Those that do, tend to have strong pools of staff who work with them frequently, and most advertise in the recruitment pages of the design press. Another option is trying one of the on-line-only recruitment portals, which all make various claims about their own advantages.

The key, though, is to think in terms of establishing a pool of freelance employees whom you know and trust. This drastically reduces bedding-in costs, and can even save you money if you book long term, or sign an exclusivity agreement with a recruitment agency. Treat these staff as an essential member of your team, not as outsiders, and hopefully the results will speak for themselves.

Looking ahead, recruitment agencies are currently very concerned. PriceJamieson has already pulled out of the freelance recruitment market as a result of Government bureaucracy.

“Due to the market changes in contract law made by the Government it became too complicated and took up too much of our time in administration,” says Ann Sharman of PriceJamieson’s design division.

The future is even more uncertain because of the Government’s review of the regulations binding employment businesses. A new draft of the Employment Agencies Act Regulations has been published by the Department for Trade and Industry in the past couple of weeks. It is currently at the consultation stage.

Among its key components is a review in the way recruitment agencies are rewarded if their freelance staff go full-time. This issue of “temporary to permanent” fees looked set to penalise recruitment agencies heavily. The Government has taken a view that these fees are a deterrent to the free movement of the labour force. At the start of the consultation process in May 1999, the Recruitment and Employment Confederation reported that “temporary to permanent fees were effectively outlawed” by the new draft.

Agencies are worried about losing out considerably when it comes to the issue of investing in freelance staff who then go full-time with an employer that they have been introduced to through the agency. Some, such as Lubbock at Recruit Media, question the long-term sustainability of offering freelance staff if this remains the case. However, the latest draft of the regulations seems to acknowledge some of these concerns, and agencies now look likely to be safeguarded for at least eight weeks from the end of a project. But until the regulations are ratified by the House of Commons, soon after 16 March, nothing is certain.

Typical freelance rates charged by agencies

Recruitment agencies take between 20 to 30 per cent of hourly charged fees. Emergency hires may cost more. Longer term contracts (about a month or more), are negotiated individually but are usually within these boundaries. Most agencies say the going rate for creative directors, specialist design staff and project managers starts at about £250 a day. Software specialists can expect a starting rate of £60 per hour.

Graphic designers: Average £26 per hour (£14 to £35)
Web designers: Average £30 per hour (£21 to £40)
Artworkers, typesetters: Average £23 per hour (£20 to £28)

* Data supplied by Desktop Personnel, Recruit Media, BDG Recruitment, Workstation Solutions


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