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Structural commitment to flexible talent
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Flexible talent
Sustainable careers
Talent & labor organization

Structural commitment to flexible talent

Organizations today must look for talent in a tight labor market. In June 2021, the VDAB received a record number of job openings: 33,760. That's more than twice as many as in June 2020 and 2019. The increase is greatest for jobs with experience, permanent contracts and highly skilled workers. With the outflow of a large generation of baby boomers, tightness in the labor market will only increase in the coming years. At the same time, in the first half of this year, more than 60,000 start-ups are already taking the plunge into entrepreneurship. A quarter more than last year, despite the corona crisis and despite all the corona restrictions that were also in effect for much of 2021. A significant number of those startups are freelancers.
Jacobs Sofie
by Sofie Jacobs, PhD
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Flexible talent

The conservative job market

Working with freelancers is no exception. In 2018, together with SD Worx, we conducted research on the flexible use of talents. This showed that 95% of the surveyed organizations employ freelancers. For a majority of them, at least 10% of their workforce consists of freelancers. Remarkably, these freelancers work significantly more in core tasks than in peripheral tasks. This means that this "borrowing" of talent is seen as a viable option not only for tasks that are considered relatively unimportant but also for tasks at the heart of the organization.


Nevertheless, many companies are also still hesitant to work with freelancers. Belgian employers prefer to hire permanent staff for new positions. No less than one in two vacancies is filled by a permanent employee (52%), preferably one with experience. Three in ten positions are filled by retraining in-house employees. Only one in five are filled by flexible workers. This puts Belgium ahead of neighboring countries such as France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Flexible talents in the organization

Despite this hesitation, the importance of freelancers to the labor market and within organizations can no longer be underestimated. Today, they increasingly form a flexible pool of talent that is not only important to absorb fluctuations in work volume. Many freelancers work in the core of the organization or are attracted because of their unique capabilities. Our research shows that the motives for hiring freelancers are diverse. The two main reasons are (1) the greater flexibility it offers, with 65% agreeing that this is at least a relatively important motivator, and (2) the fact that people with specific expertise are hard to find in the labor market (63%). The least important reason is a possible hiring freeze for payroll staff (28%). Interestingly, 36% also cite the person's preference to be self-employed rather than a payroll employee as a reason.

Towards a 'war for flexible talent'?

For a lot of freelancers, becoming self-employed is a conscious decision. From our 2018 survey of freelancers, interesting job content (69%) and freedom to choose what work you do (68%) appeared to be the main reasons for becoming a freelancer. Only a minority (15%) became freelancers because they no longer saw an alternative to staying at work.

A career as a freelancer fits the idea of flexible careers: the norm is no longer a permanent job, a career-long job with the same employer. It also puts ownership of the career explicitly in the hands of the individual. Freelancers are a minority in the workforce. Yet a thoughtful policy on why and how to use flexible talent is also becoming an important HR issue, especially as the skills and experience freelancers bring in become more critical to your organization and, in a tight labor market, more people with unique competencies no longer want to go for a permanent contract.

"It's the current interplay of a 'war for talent' and a tight labor market that creates opportunities for talent in the labor market to personalize the employment relationship: they do not choose an employment contract but a freelance status and ditto agreement to especially provide certain services to a client."

— Jan Laurijssen, SD Worx

Need for an overall vision of talent

Making sure the right talent is in place emerges as a priority throughout our Career Breakthrough Research that we have been conducting since the inception of the chair. In 2012, for example, one in two surveyed organizations indicated that this issue was high on their executive agenda. In 2016, 28% feared a talent shortage. In our 2018 survey, this figure had risen slightly to 31%. In our most recent employer survey (June 2021), 34% fear that hiring will not get any easier in the coming months. This argues for a more open view of talent, not only in terms of flexible use of internal talent but also in terms of collaboration with external talent. Using flexible employees will soon no longer be a solution to the "war for talent" if those external employees also become scarce and can choose between several appealing assignments.

Despite the fact that these concerns have been around for some time, we see few inclinations toward a more proactive approach from a holistic view of talent. For example, only a minority of the organizations in our survey have formally developed career policies (10% in 2012, 15% in 2016).

In 2012, half of the surveyed organizations say they have no policy on careers at all, 2 out of 3 deal with careers mostly ad hoc and reactively.

Towards an inclusive talent policy

This lack of proactive approach is even more pronounced when it comes to integrating flexible talent within the organization. Although many companies employ freelancers, for only a third of them this seems to be part of a formal workforce planning strategy. 32% indicate that hiring freelancers is more likely to be ad hoc.

Given the rise of flexible talent within organizations, it is high time for employers to work on an inclusive and flexible talent policy. This will not only strengthen the foundations of your organization for the future but also work on your resilience as an organization and the sustainable deployment of talents.

HR policies and systems should therefore not focus exclusively on a shrinking group of payroll employees, but rather be inclusive. This requires a rethinking of traditional approaches. In this context, developing, hiring and temporary talent should no longer be seen as mutually exclusive options. Employers should consider integrating these three practices to create sustainability in employment and positive long-term relationships, even when a contract finally ends. This not only helps you present yourself as an interesting company even to the pool of flexible workers. It also creates a stimulating environment for freelancers to develop themselves, which can also benefit their loyalty to you as a preferred client.

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