To a corporate ‘suit’ on the inside looking out, the freelance life can seem idyllic. Even the term “freelancer” has recently been upstaged by the sexier “contract worker” and “free agent,” or “interim executive,” for those at the upper end of the salary and experience scale. But all of these titles mean basically the same thing: You’re out there hustling on your own and moving from project to project for better opportunities and more money. The independent contractor is essentially a technical nomad without a clear career path and little stability. Still sound romantic? It depends on your personality and work habits. I’ll introduce you to a man that quit his corporate job to live the freewheeling life of an independent contractor, and I’ll pass on some advice as to what qualities you need to possess and what risks you’ll need to assume if you intend to strike out on your own.
Have skills, will travel
Randy Nelson could write the definitive book on the free-agent lifestyle. He gave up his top technical corporate job to become a free agent (he called himself a “hired gun”) and then went on to run his own executive search firm. He spent four exciting years moving around the United States, shuttling from one meaty project to another. The money wasn’t bad either. But Nelson was perfect for the lifestyle. He was talented, experienced, confident, and most importantly, he enjoyed the challenge of going after tough projects.
There is indeed some special attraction among information technology (IT) workers to this new career option. In the last quarter of 2000, Giga Information Group, Inc. estimated that freelancers made up 30 percent of the global IT workforce—a percentage that is likely to rise as the economy takes with it more and more dot-com casualties.
But despite the apparent IT swing toward freelancing, we should note that the number of independent contractors actually makes up just a little more than six percent of the total U.S. workforce, or 8.2 million workers—a number that has remained virtually unchanged since 1996, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Nelson says he isn’t surprised that the overall number of independent contractors has remained the same. For starters, he says, it’s a tough life. Many techies burn out after working long hours on mind-bending projects with impossible deadlines. In Nelson’s case, the strain of being away from his wife and family ultimately forced him to stow his suitcase permanently. He’d often be away for more than a year, sometimes longer, seeing his family only on weekends.
Ideally, the best freelance arrangement is to work on assignments near your home. But no matter where you work, you have to make rapid adjustments to different organizational cultures and get used to being viewed as “the outsider hired by management to get a tough job done.” It’s an assignment many workers can’t handle.
The free-agent lifestyle is even harder now, in a cooling economy with plummeting tech stocks and massive layoffs, according to Wendell Williams, managing director of ScientificSelection.com, a human resources consulting firm in Atlanta. “It means companies expect blood,” he says. “What with intense competition and more layoffs projected, companies expect 150 percent from their employees and even more from their contract workers. This precarious market fosters a mercenary mentality on the part of employers.”
But the freelance lifestyle is not all bad. As tough as it could be at times, Nelson said it was still a great learning experience. It taught him to be self-reliant and disciplined, and it forced him to stay on top of every technological innovation. “It was a great transitional period for me,” Nelson explains. “It helped me break away from the corporate mentality and think like an entrepreneur. I wouldn’t be running my own company today if I hadn’t spent a few years working as a free agent. If I were to replay the past, I’d do it all over again.”
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