The deployment of automation and artificial intelligence systems across a range of industries is already leading to redundancies and changes in work practices, especially when they involve routine, repetitive tasks. But the introduction of such technology provides an opportunity for "knowledge workers", whose skills and expertise are becoming increasingly sought after as companies rush to keep pace with change.

These experts are less likely to be traditional full-time employees, but contractors brought in to work on specific projects or see a company through a time of transition and retraining, according to Jason Walker, managing director of the New Zealand branch of international recruitment company Hays.

"If we look at the skills in demand, it is professionals who can undertake non-routine work who are seeing the highest job growth," he says. "This is likely to continue, with automation and artificial intelligence already beginning to take over manual and repetitive tasks -- just think of automated self-service checkouts in retail stores or assembly lines in manufacturing plants."

Even as some jobs are swallowed by increased automation, new roles are being created for those who can help organisations adopt and manage these new technologies.

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"Robots and AI are expected to also be used as another tool to help us do our job better, but with automation taking over routine tasks it is knowledge workers who are more likely to be needed in future," says Walker.

But these people aren't necessarily coming on staff in a traditional, permanent way. Rather than appointing full-time employees, when the need might be for a role managing transition, businesses are looking for fixed-term or project-based contractors.

"Temporary and contract employees possess a high level of relevant knowledge. They are experts in their field and come into a workplace to add value immediately. It's no wonder then that we're seeing an increase in the use of temporary and contract staff," says Walker.

According to the 2017 Hays Salary Guide, 21 per cent of New Zealand's employers now employ temporary or contract staff on a regular ongoing basis, with another 46 per cent employing them for special projects or to handle specific workloads. In the next 12 months, 20 per cent expect to increase their use of temporary and contract staff.

"We're seeing temporary and contract employees become the 'new normal' across New Zealand workplaces," says Walker. "These skilled professionals work alongside permanent employees as needed, creating a blended workforce that can flex in response to project work or the need for unique expertise."

This new pattern of working is known as the "gig" economy, where skilled workers take on short-term, well-paying "gigs", working for different organisations on specific projects or for a specified time frame.

"To work this way, individuals need to be adaptable and get to know different organisations and technologies, and in turn it provides them with greater freedom," says Walker. "More people are making the choice of when they work and don't work, and working on a project basis as a contactor gives them that additional bit of freedom."

Paid by the hour or by the project, such workers are more likely to work flexible hours, and set the parameters of when and how they work.

"A contractor might want to complete a project quite rapidly because its beneficial to them work 10 or 12-hour days for a few weeks, then have two or three weeks off to do charitable work," says Walker.

Employers might need to pay a premium rate to get the right person for the job, but can budget for it based on the contract being for a fixed period of time.

"The advantages for employers are that contractors can bring that experience and expertise in from day one - you have evidence that that person can do the task. You don't have to have the same level of commitment as you would to a permanent staff member, and you can upskill and downskill your workforce as you need to, according to what's happening within the business," says Walker.

"That flexibility provides employers with the ability to manoeuvre. To adapt to change, businesses have to act and react very quickly. They know that they are going to pay a premium for the people that they bring in, but they don't have to invest in training of these individuals."

Walker says there is a critical difference when recruiting such knowledge workers for contract positions.

"When you work with an organisation on a permanent recruitment, it's more related to cultural fit, on what value the person is going to have in your team.

"When someone comes to us looking for contractors from the knowledge workforce, the focus is more on the specific technological abilities of the person and what similar projects they have done before. Fit for culture is still important but it's more 'can they do this job in this timeframe, and what results have they had in the past'. They are saying: 'show me evidence of how you have done this before'."

As an example of someone who has taken to the gig economy and made it work for them, Walker cites Wellington-based Jo Cribb. One of the youngest chief executives to be appointed in the public service, when she ran the Ministry for Women, Cribb is now a leadership consultant, working with New Zealand businesses on increasing diversity.

"This is a very hot topic - a lot of companies are seeing it as the right thing to do but are struggling to execute it. So she has set up a business to help them structure this and support them and create more diverse leaders within organisations," says Walker.
"Two years ago wouldn't have thought of having someone like that. She has become a consultant in a completely new field."