Precarious employment in the high-tech sector

Non-standard work arrangements have always existed in the service industry. But certain aspects of non-standard work are becoming common in the highly-paid, high- tech sector, too, according to Institute researcher Dr. Ellen MacEachen.

She and her colleagues have conducted in-depth interviews with senior managers and information technology workers (such as computer programmers) in 30 of Ontario’s mid-sized software services and development companies. Although data analysis is still in progress, this research points to certain trends that may have long- term implications for workplace health:

  • High- tech workers don’t expect job security. This highly volatile industry can promise economic rewards but cannot promise security and stability, MacEachen says. “Organizational flux is the norm as companies are downsized, restructured and merged. In this context, there is little expectation among managers or other workers that jobs will last longer than a few years.”
  • Lifelong training is essential for workers to remain employable. Those who don’t keep their skills up- to-date can quickly become obsolete and be seen as a burden to their company’s economic prosperity. “Training is resource intensive, and it may be difficult for smaller companies to live up to their commitment to training to foster longer- term relationships with employees,” MacEachen adds.
  • Job tenure is short and staff turnover is high. Workers in this sector move from company to company in order to increase their earnings rate, personal investments and skill sets. “Some highly skilled workers will seek out contract work and manage their own health insurance and job security to earn a higher income and may engage in intensified work periods in order to retire early,” says MacEachen.
  • The high- tech workforce is predominantly young and male. Younger workers who have recently left school may have training advantages because their skills are more current. Younger unmarried workers may also be less concerned about job security and be more eager to explore multiple job opportunities.
  • Occupational health in this growing industry may be difficult to measure and monitor. The computer software firms in Ontario that MacEachen studied are not scheduled for mandatory insurance coverage with the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board and often did not offer short- or long- term health benefits to their staff. Occupational health was not seen as a significant topic in this entrepreneurial industry where IT workers play up their marketability as they constantly go in and out of the job market and jobs shift overseas.

Source: At Work, Issue 43, Winter 2006: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto