Going Solo: The Trend Toward Freelancing

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Imagine a workplace where you set your own schedule and choose what projects you work on, where you work and how much you’re paid. No one is watching you, monitoring your inbox or taking note of the time it takes you to eat lunch.

For some, this is a work life they can only dream of. For others, it’s already a reality. In light of rising bankruptcies, bailouts and pink slips, living the “1099 life” — 1099 being the income reporting form used for independent contractors — seems to be a scenario more and more workers are considering.

“You really have to take into consideration the economic times — that’s what is driving it,” said Dave Willmer, executive director of Robert Half Technology, referring to the trend of workers turning to freelance and short-term contract work.

Going it alone can provide myriad benefits, such as greater day-to-day flexibility or increased pay. And the fact that the unemployment rate in the U.S. alone reached 9.4 percent in May, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, means more dislocated workers also may consider going solo.

But, along with the above-mentioned pluses, some caveats need to be considered before deciding to become an independent contractor. For those not accustomed to taking on multiple job roles, the number of hats a sole proprietor dons on any given day can be eye opening.

Further, health insurance alone can sometimes make a less-than-attractive pay package worthwhile. Take that package away and replace it with the responsibility of footing the entire work bill — from the mundane, such as office supplies and coffee, to the mandatory, such as state and federal taxes, licenses and insurance — and the freelance life may not sound so free at all.

The cost of professional development, including certification and the courses that often go with it, also can be hefty — especially when there’s no big employer to underwrite the expense.

The price of most certifications, from the beginning courses to an invariable slew of exams, can be steep.

Courses such as Cisco Certified Training Partner classes can set an applicant back thousands of dollars. Even those opting for self-study can’t escape: The total cost associated with book and CD-based learning runs into the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

Add to that the loss of time from work that, without an employer, means you won’t be compensated, as well as the tab for meals, travel and other expenses, and you’re looking at significant out-of-pocket expenses.

It’s a lot to digest. For those looking for the flexibility that independent contracting can provide — but who are not ready or willing to shoulder the rest of the responsibilities, including marketing, attracting clients and bookkeeping — a professional staffing and consulting company might help.

Commonly referred to as a temp agency, these firms have come a long way in recent years, with Web-based time cards, vacations, professional development, referral bonuses and health insurance becoming standard almost across the board.

“When you’re independent, it’s your own network,” Willmer explained. “A corporation that’s pretty large has brand name recognition, so you’re automatically joining their network. You have somebody who’s marketing for you, whose job it is to find you your next assignment. You’ve got people whose careers are designed around finding your assignments.”

Many companies also consider independent contracting a win-win situation for many reasons.

The ability to bring in someone on a contract basis means a company can, in essence, try out a worker without commitment, making way for potential full-time work as it becomes available.

Willmer said a recent report by RHI shows that 20 percent of CIOs are planning on hiring a mix of full-time and contract workers in the near future.

However, economic woes don’t necessarily translate into entrepreneurs saying “so long” to the cubicle life.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a huge influx of independent contractors,” Willmer said. “People are always thinking about their careers and the long term. They may be willing to be flexible in the short term, but if people are in transition and eventually want to get into the full-time market, start their own company, they wouldn’t want to do that.

“Ultimately, this is not what they want to be doing long term, but it’s a great solution for today,” he concluded.

For those with plenty of job-related skills but a lack of business acumen, professional staffing companies can help fill the gaps. For example, once a project has been completed, freelancers don’t get paid until their invoice is processed. Working for a professional staffing company, that professional is guaranteed a consistent paycheck.

Fortunately, the IT sector should continue to see solid demand and job growth, despite a less-than-ideal overall economy. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Spring 2009 Occupational Outlook Quarterly reports an expected 24 percent increase in IT jobs between 2006 and 2016, compared to a 10 percent expected increase for all other occupations.

This means that those on the other side of the hiring desk consider temporary workers a great asset in terms of having a lean working team and controlling costs.

According to Willmer, there will be demand for positions in areas such as application development and help desk support as well as virtualization all the way through top positions.

“Now, some of these things are starting to go live, and in some cases you need some support on the back end,” he explained. “[And] as companies try to look for ways to be cost-effective, how to save money, virtualization is one area that comes to mind. That and VOIP.”

While the current economic challenges have sent many with the entrepreneurial spirit out into the harsh freelance reality, for the most part, many who have entered the strange new company-free world are hoping someday to parlay that consulting gig into a cubicle of their very own.

“I’d say the majority are interested in keeping their skills current and getting back into that full-time market,” Willmer said.

Erica S. Brath is a freelance writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She writes regularly for local publications such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Weekly, as well as a variety of national and industry-specific magazines. She can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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