In October 2017, firms specialising in professional recruitment have recorded a decline of 10% in the overall number of contracting vacancies for flexible workers, compared to figures at the same time last year. Demand for permanent employees remained relatively steady over the same interval, rising modestly by 0.2% since 2016, according to the latest survey data from the Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo).

Demand for contracting professionals appears to have declined across all of the core sector groups monitored by APSCo.

Overall, vacancies for engineering professionals slipped by 2% in October, while appreciably larger declines were recorded within marketing, finance and IT, which saw vacancy numbers diminish by 25%, 15% and 10% respectively.

Although the number of permanent vacancies on offer grew overall by just 0.2%, the number of permanent candidates actually placed in new roles grew by 5% year-on-year. This is largely due to burgeoning demand in the engineering and finance sectors, were placements grew by 7% and 17% respectively.

The number of contracting professionals actively engaged on assignments also declined by 8% since 2016. However, that overall figure conceals significant increases in the engineering and finance sectors, where the number of contractors actively engaged on assignments rose by 14% and 16% respectively.

While this appears to be a gloomy trend for the flexible professional workforce, APSCo CEO Ann Swain sounded a more optimistic note. Commenting on the new data, she said:

“The overall fall in contract placements can largely be attributed to a 30% drop in IT assignments. This may, in part, be in response to changes to rules around off payroll working in the public sector which were introduced in April. However, news that the government will not automatically extend these reforms to the private sector without careful consideration should ensure the wider contract market remains strong in the near future.”

During a panel discussion in London organised by tax consultants RSM this weekend, Matthew Taylor, who conducted the recent government-commissioned review into modern working practices, warned the Treasury against any measures that would jeopardise flexible working in the UK. He insisted this mode of employment was predominantly good for workers and the labour market more broadly. Evidence presented during his review persuaded him that most flexible workers – “gig economy people, part-time hours workers and contractors” – were happy to work in this way.

Responding to autumn budget proposals to consult carefully on the possibilities of extending public sector IR35 reforms to the private sector, Chris Sanger, tax policy leader at EY, warned against undermining the UK’s digital future “by deterring contractors and others who will play an important role in our new economy.”

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