Get Shirley

This is a guest post by Sarah Burnett, research director for public sector BPO at analyst NelsonHall.

IT employment market data indicates a shortage of professionals to fill advertised vacancies. It was in similar circumstances that Steve Shirley set up one of the most successful IT services businesses in the UK, staffed almost entirely by women returners working part-time. The time has come for organisations to revisit the very flexible working model that Shirley pioneered.

Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, is a truly remarkable lady. She arrived in England as a child refugee from Nazi Germany and was brought up by foster parents. From such tough beginnings she went on to become one of the most innovative employers in the industry the likes of whom we have not seen since.

In the 1960s, Shirley set up a company called F International which allowed women returners to work the hours and the pattern that suited them. F International later became FI Group and later Xansa which was acquired by Steria in 2007 for a handsome sum of £472m. The success of the company shows that innovation in employment policy can deliver huge benefits. It is a question of timing and adapting. The bursting of the dot com bubble in the 1990s changed the market dynamics. Demand for part-time workers dropped and Shirley’s company changed the emphasis of its employment policy.

There is a shortage of skills again today. Recent estimates from e-Skills UK indicate a gap of around 12% between the number of IT jobs advertised and professionals looking for jobs. The gap is likely to increase as the economy recovers. The time is right for companies to rethink their recruitment and employment policies to attract skilled women back into work, to fill some of those vacancies.

Some employers would baulk at the thought of having to manage women returners’ different work patterns. Others might be inspired by the success of Steve Shirley to think of different models that maximise the use of part time workers but in the modern age.

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