I have worked long enough to have experienced multiple recession/recovery cycles. In the past, when employers downsized during recessions, they typically turned to freelancers to get them through the crunch periods. Then, when the economy picked up again, they offered full-time jobs to the best available talent. In a strong economy, the term “freelancer” sometimes described a part-time worker who was temporarily between full-time jobs.
Things are much different now, even though many colleges, job-training programs, and government statisticians haven’t yet realized it. The severity of the current economic downturn, the rapidity of technological change, and the ease of global outsourcing have made it economically attractive for managers to hire fewer full-time employees. Today, companies can use online employment agencies to quickly assemble “virtual teams” of “independent workers” with specialized skills from throughout the U.S. and around the world.
The Q2, 2011 Report from Elance and an article by Sara Horowitz in The Atlantic Magazine show two sides of this story, and suggest the emergence of a permanent class of “independent workers.”
Elance Reports Record Growth
Elance®, a worldwide platform for online employment, promotes its ability to help businesses hire and manage projects “in the cloud.” In their Q2 report for 2011, they reported that businesses are hiring online more than ever, “driving record earnings for online workers across all sectors, including IT, Creative, Marketing, and Operations.” according to the report:
The number of active clients jumped 23% to 160,756. The 453,461 online workers who find gigs through Elance earned a record $34.3 million in Q2, up 48% from Q2 in 2010.
Demand for skills such as WordPress Programming, Game Development, and iOS Programming, continued to make IT the largest category of employment, with a 107% increase in jobs posted compared to the end of Q2 in 2010.
In the Creative category, there was a 79% year-over-year increase in demand. Skills such as business writing, photography, and illustration helped fuel this growth, but the largest jump in demand (148%) occurred in the field of Infographics.
The full report can be downloaded from the Elance website. It includes a variety of charts and graphs including:
- total earning by category
- who clients are hiring
- number of job posts by category
- what online workers are earning
- contractor earnings by category
- geography hot spots
- top hiring U.S. cities
- top earning U.S. cities
- top states by contractor earnings
Of the top 20 skills in demand, 9 were in the creative fields. In-demand creative skills include:
- article writing (ranked 3)
- graphic design (4)
- Photoshop (8)
- content writing (10)
- blogs (12)
- Illustrator (13)
- research (16)
- logo design (18)
- web content (20)
In a Sept. 7 press release, Elance notes that businesses gain flexibility and time savings by hiring contingent workers online. An August survey of Elance clients showed that 83% of the businesses plan to hire at least 50% of their workers online in the next 12 months, and nearly half of the businesses plan to make 90% of their hires online.
A New Industrial Revolution?
In the first of a series of columns on the website of The Atlantic magazine, Sara Horowitz writes that, “Everywhere we look, we can see the U.S. workforce undergoing a massive change.” Instead of working for the same company for 25 years and reaping the benefits of full-time employment, she says, “Today careers consist of piecing together various types of work, juggling multiple clients, learning to be marketing and accounting experts, and creating offices in bedrooms, coffeeshops, or co-working spaces.” She points out that, “We’re no longer simply lawyers, or photographers, or writers. Instead, we’re part-time lawyers-cum-amateur photographers who write on the side.”
Today’s surge in freelancing might ultimately be as consequential as a modern Industrial Revolution. Yet, as Horowitz points out, the government doesn’t count independent workers in a meaningful and accurate way. Nor are there provisions for some of the protections that independent workers need in order to build economic security (e.g. unemployment insurance, protection from unpaid wages, etc.)
Sara Horowitz is the founder of The Freelancers Union, which was described in the post “Three Organizations that Can Help Freelance Creative Pros.”