You’ve probably heard of Amazon’s microtasking platform Mechanical Turk, but you may not be familiar with its inspiration, an 18th century automaton that travelled the courts of Europe playing chess and dazzling elites (that sadly, turned out be little more than a mechanical illusion).
Like the original Turk, Amazon’s platform disguises human action as automation, though it’s less about sleight-of-hand and more about leveraging the power of large groups of people to accomplish many small tasks. Mechanical Turk was also an early sign (it launched a decade ago in 2005) of a larger shift we’re witnessing today toward an economy that relies on flexible freelance labor and new technology to get work done.
The rise in freelance employment
Independent contractors have always been a big part of the US economy. But the rise of modern corporations led to a decline in the number of farmers, shop owners, and craftsmen, with salaried, full-time employment becoming the norm. The 21st century, however, has brought with it the ability for employers to connect with employees as never before, new remote work technologies, and social change, all of which are driving more American workers to freelance and contract work.
Whether it’s micro-tasks like the kind found on Mechanical Turk, TaskRabbit, Uber, Handy, and Fancy Hands, or highly specific tech solutions, modern day freelance work is more prevalent than ever. Current estimates suggest that 53 million Americans are involved in some sort of freelance work. That’s a 3% jump over the last time the US gathered data on worker distribution—not earthshaking, but it certainly shows a trend. A 2010 survey by Intuit predicts that by 2020 over 40% of Americans will be ‘contigent’, or freelance workers.
Improved tools, faster connections
Some of the biggest contributors to the increase in freelance work are improved crowdsourcing tools and services connecting employers to freelancers. From Elance-oDesk to Guru, there are more and better freelance marketplaces than ever before, allowing employers and freelancers alike to connect easily and efficiently. There is widespread agreement among freelancers that technology, especially social media, has made freelance opportunities more accessible—one half say that they can find new projects in less than three days, while a third can find work in as little as 24 hours.
New marketplaces are also allowing employers to source top performers in their fields. TopTal, a network that connects tech companies with talented professionals, and Appirio, which helps companies find freelance IT workers, are two examples. “This new breed of freelance platform only admits engineers and developers at the top of their field,” says TopTal’s CEO, Taso Du Val. “We get tens of thousands of applications, and our acceptance rate is only 3 percent; well below Harvard or the Navy Seals. We are trying to be the McKinsey of engineering.”
Then there’s the new technology that makes freelance work more feasible than ever. Video conferencing solutions like the ones offered by Highfive have made it simpler and easier to have a quick meeting or conference. Team communication tools like Slack and 10,000ft make collaboration a breeze. And productivity trackers like iDoneThis allow freelancers to provide measurable milestones and project updates better than ever before. We are only just starting to scratch the surface of how these technologies will change the way we work.
Social change paves the way for freelancers
Another driving force behind the move to freelance are changing social conditions and work preferences. Perhaps most important is the Affordable Care Act, which has made it possible to afford health care without full-time employment, eliminating a huge obstacle to freelance work.
On top of this, innovators like Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, have demonstrated the viability of living like a digital nomad, the ‘have laptop will travel’ types who leverage their skills to work remotely, rarely, if ever, going into an office. This has inspired a new generation of highly-skilled individuals, mostly in tech, who work remotely. But full-time telecommuters are still rare—only 2.6% of the workforce—and include some of the top professionals in their fields: people who can choose their clients, demand adequate compensation, and prefer freedom to stability.
How employers benefit
The increased availability of freelance employment is exciting for the freelancer, but it can be great for employers as well since they benefit from the affordability, accessibility, and flexibility of contract workers. Freelancers are great for putting out fires or shoring up the ranks in crunch time. The rise of freelance work has allowed people with highly specific skill sets to flourish, while giving companies access to these in-demand skills.
Although the upswing in the economy has made full-time hiring more attractive again, many firms picked up the habit during the downturn of making smart use of contract and freelance employees. According to Emergent Research, a firm that studies independent workers, corporations are looking to develop contingent workforces in order to be more agile and scale up or down based on market demand. Law firms and big corporations are finding that jobs that used to be in-house—like customer service or web development projects—can be safely handed off to freelance workers.
Clearly, this trend isn’t going away. CareerBuilder discovered that while the number of employers planning to hire full-time employees remained flat, the number hoping to hire contract or temporary workers had increased by ten percent. Emergent Research projects that the independent workforce is likely to grow by 6% annually until the market stabilizes.
Whether you need to outsource a menial but time-consuming task, or you have a temporary problem that only an expert can solve, freelance workers provide an agile, modular, scalable solution that employers are only just starting to take advantage of. Freelance and contract work is here to stay.
Photo courtesy of Eric Parker.