by Mike Hales, Christian Hagen and Todd Huseby

Quick Hits, Big Returns from Contract Labor Vigilance

Nov 21, 20057 mins
IT LeadershipOutsourcing

One of the most popular organizational and project delivery strategies of the past few years has been to manage labor costs by hiring contract workers rather than taking on full-time employees. Lower costs and increased flexibility top the list of reasons why. But, after riding the contractor bandwagon even for a short time, the benefits can begin to wane. These incremental losses are virtually invisible, quietly sapping cash and compromising organizational efficiency. There is a way to keep the benefits going. It begins with three important questions: Are you reducing labor costs as much as you can? Are you really increasing delivery flexibility as much as you expected? Are you aggressively managing the contractors on an ongoing basis, or are you stuck in the “I-already-solved-that-problem” trap?

One way to answer these questions is to periodically review your labor contracts—particularly for IT. Especially for companies in financial services, high-tech and large-scale manufacturing, this is an increasingly large area. By reviewing each large project to determine where (or if) money can be saved and challenging the status quo, management can squeeze 10 to 50 percent in cost savings. The cost savings result from using “contract labor substitution” strategies which more effectively match labor with project needs. Taking steps such as eliminating unnecessary positions, ensuring that workers aren’t being overpaid, and bringing some workers on as full-time employees routs out the unnecessary expenses that creep in over the duration of a project.

The best time to launch a labor review is on the heels of existing strategic sourcing efforts because contract labor substitution picks up where sourcing leaves off. Sourcing essentially focuses on how effectively an organization purchases contract labor by methodically bidding down prices for certain skill sets and supplier mark-ups. (A corollary benefit of sourcing is streamlined skill sets and preferred supplier relationships.) Substitution challenges whether the right combination of skills and resources are in place, given the new market information gathered from strategic sourcing efforts.

While sourcing should be performed repeatedly to ensure that skills are appropriately purchased, substitution should be done at regular intervals to ensure the project and organization realizes the most benefits. Marrying the two approaches can maximize the benefits realized.

Keeping pace with change

A large-scale IT project typically has several distinct phases, from design and implementation through user acceptance. While continuity from one stage to the next is important, having the same skills or people throughout the life of the project is often not necessary. A software architect, for example, is a critical player at the beginning of a project, but once implementation and coding begin, the parameters shift; keeping the high-priced contractor to do coding is like hiring Barry Bonds to hit cleanup rather than leadoff. For complex multiyear IT projects, such additional costs can reach into the millions.

Also, just as projects change so do market rates for certain skills. In the late 1990s, companies had to pay top-dollar for programmers with SAP and Java skills. Today, the market is saturated with workers who possess these skills, and the market rate has plummeted as a result. Critically evaluating the needed project skills against current market rates, the savings will quickly add up.

Consider the case of a large IT company. Each year, the company spends approximately $2 billion on contract labor globally, with the majority in IT. So when executives were looking for ways to trim costs and improve cash flow, they focused on the biggest areas of their contract labor spend. They drove traditional sourcing strategies to find opportunities to buy services and skills at a lower price, followed by a contract labor substitution analysis. The company has a number of large-scale IT projects that rely heavily on contract workers. But, as is often the case, after a project ramps up and hits its stride, existing labor costs and IT skills are rarely revisited. By taking a second, more critical look, executives discovered that not only were labor costs noticeably above market rates, but a number of positions were either no longer necessary or could be swapped out with less-expensive workers who had the necessary skills to deliver the project. In some cases, it made sense to turn some long-term contract positions into full-time in-house positions. After thoroughly examining all areas, the company implemented a contract labor substitution program that, coupled with sourcing benefits, saved nearly $100 million within the first year. It also established a policy to revisit these projects periodically, to ensure that the savings are maintained and to identify future areas of savings.

Putting it in practice

A contract labor substitution strategy is most relevant for companies that outsource IT or other highly-skilled&151;and therefore highly paid—positions. A low-skilled data-entry clerk, for example, may make $15 an hour, and while it’s possible that person could be replaced with someone who makes $14 an hour, the difference is negligible. At the higher end of the spectrum, the gap is significantly bigger, which means the opportunities are greater. For example, an SAP contractor may have been hired several years ago at $150 an hour. Today, such expertise is more common, and the person could be replaced with someone with the same skill set at just $70 or lower an hour (depending on experience and location). In just a few short years, critical skills become more like commodities, and labor practices must keep pace.

To help companies find these hidden savings and streamline their operational costs, we developed the following five-step labor-substitution methodology:

  1. Identify key projects. The first step is to pinpoint which projects have the largest labor spend by looking at top-down project costs. Best practice companies pull together an assessment team that takes on the responsibility of prioritizing the various projects and reaching out to project managers and key stakeholders of each project.
  2. Collect and analyze data. Because this strategy is based on a bottom-up approach, collecting and analyzing in-house data is critical. What positions and skill sets do you have? Look at each of the contractors, their skills and pay. How do they compare with the going market rate? Any gaps between market rates and company terms should quickly become apparent.
  3. Identify opportunities for substitution. The assessment team will work closely with project leaders to identify specific areas of substitution. Are there people who are overqualified? For example, is the organizational structure right, or do you have too many senior people and not enough low and mid-level programmers? Does the project effectively match “needed” skills with “actual” skills or are you paying for skills you don’t need? What about contractors who have solid long-term and critical skills—could they become full-time employees?
  4. Build the business case. Working closely with the project managers, begin building a solid business case and gain buy-in from all stakeholders. While focusing on the bottom-line numbers is important, paying equal attention to business risk at this stage is critical. In other words, don’t put $100 million at risk just to save $1 million.
  5. Begin implementation. Establish a realistic timetable and begin substitution, ensuring a smooth transition and minimizing risk associated with the disruption. In the long term, the assessment team should continue to track benefits and identify additional savings opportunities.
Rules to live by

Contract labor substitution doesn’t rewrite the rules of the game for project managers, but it does allow them to get a winning edge. With competition in the IT sector becoming increasingly fierce, strategies that slash costs while providing deep and sustainable organizational improvements are invaluable. The biggest rewards, however, will come from making such assessments routine. Over time, this will lead to a new corporate mindset that continuously keeps project costs down, without risking successful performance. For organizations that want to realize and maintain significant savings, contract labor substitution analysis can help lead the way.

The authors all hail from A.T. Kearney’s Chicago office where Mike Hales is a vice president, Christian Hagen is a principal and Todd Huseby is a consultant.