A Focus on Long-Term Careers in the Contingent World

By Irwin Speizer

Mar. 20, 2007

Bernadette Kenny’s flight landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, one morning in March and she shuttled to the local office of staffing company Adecco Inc. Once there, she offered advice and coaching on attracting and keeping talented temporary workers, then huddled with managers to plan annual bonus reviews and awards.

    Next it was off to a luncheon for one of Adecco’s clients, a local bank, where she spoke to 60 of the bank’s hiring and human resources executives as well as a few of the bank’s contingent workers about the challenges of catering to a multi-generational workforce. She ended the day back on an airplane.

    Such is the daily grind of the staffing industry’s first “chief career officer,” a newly created position at industry giant Adecco’s North American operations designed to provide leadership and guidance on workforce retention, development and recruitment. The new role became official March 19 and Kenny continues to hold her previous job title: senior vice president of human resources for Adecco North America.

    Taking a few minutes to chat via cell phone while waiting to catch her flight out of Charlotte, Kenny reflected on how her new role may affect the operation of a company that provides contingent workers around the globe.

    “It is my role to bring career planning and career development and awareness to the hundreds of thousands of associates who work for us every year,” Kenny says. “It is also a way of demonstrating to corporate customers that we are committed to the careers of the people we place with them.”

    Kenny, a staffing industry veteran with 25 years at Adecco, including management stints in sales and marketing, sees her new role as a way for the company to improve its ability to locate, develop and encourage retention of qualified workers. The high-level title sends a message to corporate clients that Adecco is serious about the task.

    Industry insiders and competitors are watching to see whether the introduction of a chief career officer has any effect on Adecco’s operations and bottom line, or turns out to be more of a public relations move designed to impress corporate clients.

    The first order of business for Kenny is dealing with a looming contingent labor shortage that has staffing companies and corporate clients worried.

    “The test will be whether they are able to bring in the talent their clients need,” says Steve Berchem, vice president of the American Staffing Association.

    Kenny says she recognizes that her success in the new role depends ultimately on how her work affects the bottom line at Adecco, a global powerhouse in staffing with 6,600 offices in 70 countries and a network of 700,000 contingent workers.

    If she can persuade temporary workers to stick with Adecco for multiple assignments, she should be able to reduce turnover and cut Adecco’s recruitment costs. And if she is able through training and development programs to raise the skill level of Adecco’s employees and its temporary workers, that should help Adecco sell its services to corporate clients and generate revenue.

    “This goes to the heart of the business,” Kenny says of her new position. “There is money to be made in it.”

    If the position proves beneficial to Adecco’s North American operations, it could be expanded to other parts of the company and might be adopted by rivals in the staffing industry.

    Adecco has been on a mission to improve its bottom line after seeing its profits slip in 2005 behind such rivals as Manpower. Worried that Adecco was losing its edge, co-founder Klaus Jacobs, who had taken a lower-profile role in the corporation, increased his stake, using the added clout to oust then-CEO Jerome Caille and assume the job himself.

    Jacobs then engineered the takeover of German staffing company DIS in 2006, where he found someone to take over the top job at Adecco. As part of the deal, DIS CEO Dieter Scheiff became Adecco’s new CEO in August 2006.

    Since then, Scheiff has been reshuffling leadership at Adecco, including the North America unit. On March 1, Tig Gilliam, 42, took over as country manager for the U.S. and Canada, moving from IBM Global Business Services, where he was global head of supply chain management services. The move mirrors what’s happening at many large corporations, where procurement officers have taken larger roles in contingent staffing to better control costs and contracts.

    Kenny’s appointment offers some balance to the trend toward greater reliance on procurement methods. She will continue to oversee human resources functions in North America. But as chief career officer, Kenny will also provide leadership on learning, training and talent development; direct U.S. strategy for the Adecco Institute, a new research center created in October that focuses on such issues as employee satisfaction and productivity; direct Adecco University, the company’s learning center and its development of a Web-based leadership program; and act as senior advisor on Adecco’s diversity initiatives.

    Kenny says part of her goal is to help Adecco bond with its employees as well as its contingent workers by catering to career needs. Staffing organizations that ignore the career aspirations of contingent workers are missing a key component of worker relations, she says.

    “People are very much focused on what their own personal career means to them,” Kenny says. “People change jobs frequently today. The worker today is extremely individualistic. My job title speaks to that, to the personal nature of each individual worker.”

    Kenny says she hopes to measure her success by her impact on job satisfaction among Adecco employees and on the usage patterns of the contingent workers those employees oversee. She will be looking for trends in contracts for contingent workers and whether Adecco is able to reduce turnover and keep contract workers attached to Adecco longer.

    “As you can imagine, the very nature of the term ‘variable workforce’ leads workers to think short term,” Kenny says. “We want the worker to think long term with Adecco.”

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with