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Why your freelancing friend has a job

It’s no secret that the U.S. labor force is undergoing a massive change. It is rare now to work at the same company for 30 years (maybe even frowned upon). No longer is someone just a project manager, or adventure guide, or artist. Instead, you find part-time PMs, who take the summer off to lead tours, while dabbling in art on the side. They piece together various types of work, juggling multiple projects, learning new software programs and acquiring skills as needed, all while working in any coffee shop they can find. They are highly sought after due to their relative affordability, flexibility, and wide range of skills and experiences.

Independent contractor, consultant, temp, contingent staffer, sole proprietor, self-employed, freelancer. What used to be a seemingly eclectic bunch of independent workers are now a mainstay in today’s workforce, compromising of an estimated 53 million Americans, or more than one-third of the U.S. workforce, according to a recent survey conducted by Freelancers Union. One firm estimates that more than 50 percent of the workforce will become so-called freelance workers by 2020.

So why the rise? Here are 5 reasons freelancers are in such high-demand.

Flexibility: A freelancer generally works on more than one project at a time so is likely to be available to jump in on a high-priority, shorter-term project. Compared to the time and cost it takes to hire a full-time employee, well, there’s little comparison. Freelancers allow companies to staff up and down as needed, having access to different kinds of people for shorter-term assignments. This creates a more agile workforce, which can be more innovative and competitive, and better able to deal with the fluctuating needs of the business.

Breadth: It would be fun to compare today’s resume to one 30 years ago. No doubt, the person would boast several years with the same company, possibly remaining in the same department for that length of time. Not so today. What could be viewed as a lack of loyalty by earlier generations, is now a sign that a person has breadth and can participate on several different facets of a project. Not just communications, for example, or just the ‘back-end.’ This breadth, too, can enable an enterprise to progress more rapidly in meeting the needs of their business.

Cost: It’s certainly debatable, but a quick search on the internet about the cost of hiring a full-time employee makes hiring a freelancer quite appealing. The ability to staff on a project-basis is similar to how the cloud works. You pay for what you use as opposed to paying someone a salary whether they have work or now. Having folks sitting around ‘acting busy’ to hold on to their job isn’t very cost-effective, and in the fluctuating global markets, paying for something (or someone) that isn’t making money is going to get looked at.

Talent: To only hire full-time, 40 hour+ employees, is to miss a huge pool of amazing skills and abilities. The breadth and depth of knowledge available via contingent staff should be tapped by any company looking to innovate, differentiate, and expand. I used to work with a ‘guru’ (yes, that was his title) at a large software firm, and he went around to several companies and offered his expertise as needed. I was very skeptical until I had the opportunity to sit in a meeting with him. And the insight he offered was quite remarkable. Having access to that rare breed that can pop into the office and offer a game-changing nugget of advice or vision, seems to often come from that ‘eccentric’ pool of ‘sole proprietors.’

Technology: Contingent staff need to be managed, no doubt, but of course there’s an app for that. Or a software program. There is a rise in freelance-related apps and software that recognize the unique needs of freelancers such as project management tools, to-do lists, and accounting. There are also tools that help companies large and small manage freelance workers, from creating contracts to managing timesheets, HR issues, and everything in between. Furthermore, the use of technology offers more efficiency. As more and more workers carry mobile devices, there is a decrease in the time needed to locate a consultant and an increase in communication for all parties involved.

Time will tell if this Gig Nation (as it’s been referred to) will continue to rise or stabilize. But I’m pretty sure if you aren’t a freelancer now, you’ll either become one, or hire one. Based on my research, neither seems to be a bad thing.