2016 Summer Series: The Evolving Contingent Workforce, Southwest Airlines

This week, I spoke with Karen Thrasher who manages Southwest Airlines’ Contingent Worker program and also leads the People department’s FTE & Contingent recruitment functions. Karen has been in the contingent workforce management (CWM) space for about six years and particularly enjoys vendor management and participating in the strategic partnership between human resources and procurement. She is passionate about the employee experience and feels that Southwest’s approach to CWM is truly driving the future of the industry.

In the past several years, Karen has developed strategy for ensuring a best in class CWM program that is centered on ensuring a positive employment experience. Southwest made the decision to bring the management of their CWM program in house and establish an internally managed program (IMP) model and move away from the MSP model they had formerly had in place. Karen shares that during the years that Southwest partnered with an MSP, the organization was able to gain experience and valuable subject matter expertise however, the decision to transition to the IMP model was based upon Southwest’s culture and its’ value of people as its’ most competitive advantage. They wanted to ensure that this culture directly extended to and influenced their contingent workforce population.

Karen shares that she has seen an evolution of the field in recent years, particularly in that the stigma attached to the contingent worker is changing. Within her own teams, she has a variety of generations and backgrounds of both FTE and contingent workers; the majority of her team are millennials. Karen feels ultimately career success is about being open to a variety of opportunities including contingent roles. In that light, the Southwest IMP takes great steps to ensure that contingent workers do not have a different employment experience than FTEs by decorating cubes and scheduling welcome lunches on contingent workers’ first days.

In terms of how contingent talent is attracted and retained, Karen states that she has not seen a lot of changes in their expectations; contingent workers are consistent in that they do not want to have a different employment experience than FTEs. And she further cautions against the tendency to lump expectations and drivers for the entire millennial workforce into one bucket, rather that organizations adapt to individual drivers. Karen is curious to see how the gig economy drives talent management in the years to come.  

Looking ahead, Karen anticipates a workforce heavier in the use of contingent labor and a CWM environment in which freelance management systems are leveraged to increasingly support the ability of organizations to engage talent in the way they prefer to work. Karen expects more organizations to question the value proposition of the managed service provider (MSP) model, to create, and to identify alternative options for CWM. She is also strategizing around how to be able to incorporate the 1099 population into the talent mix in her program while mitigating risk.