In 1997, author Dan Pink noted in an article in Fast Company magazine that there were approximately 25 million “free agents” in the U.S. A free agent, much like in sports, is a person who does not have any commitments that restrict their actions, and it includes all nonsalaried jobs. Free agents are also referred to as contract workers, consultants and freelancers. They don’t receive health care benefits, unemployment insurance or collective-bargaining rights. Free agents work with multiple clients on a variety of projects based on their unique set of abilities.
In 2011, Kelly Services found that the number of free agents had grown to 44 million as Americans desired more freedom, flexibility and ways to get paid for their professional skills. Recently, a study by MBO Partners projected that there could be 70 million free agents by 2020, creating a workplace environment with more free agents than full-time employees. That shows that we’re moving from an economy that supported full-time employment and benefits to one where professionals have multiple jobs simultaneously.
Companies are hiring more free agents than ever before because they save money and acquire niche expertise to solve specific business problems. This is different from full-time salaried workers who get benefits and are generalists in their fields. In 2009, companies hired 28% more freelancers, and now in 2012, they are hiring 36% more, reports CareerBuilder. John Challenger, the CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says that “another benefit of hiring freelancers is that during slow periods, [companies] don’t have to hold onto them.” Companies are moving toward a “hire at will” recruiting strategy and away from a “hire for life” one.
In the current economy, there is no job security, it’s easy for professionals to become irrelevant with the explosion of new technology, and employees are building their careers across organizations, not just up the ladder. The social contract that employers have with workers is evolving to one where “it’s less about loyalty and more important to focus on projects,” says Challenger. So if you’re a free agent, or aspiring to be one, here are a few important tips to keep in mind.
1. Bond Together with Other Free Agents
The biggest challenge you will have is to build a pipeline of client projects to survive and thrive on. There can be periods of time when you’re looking for the next project, unlike a full-time gig where your manager delivers the next project right to you. You have to be a good salesperson and be able to develop relationships if you want to last in the business. One way around this is to connect with other like-minded free agents and become “master tradesmen,” as Challenger says. This way, you will have more control over contracting out your expertise. By bonding together, you can share resources and have ongoing interactions with clients in a more scalable manner. You should refer jobs to other free agents because they might reciprocate in the future. The karma you create by helping out other people will pay dividends later. Use Twellow.com to search for freelance professionals on Twitter and join the Consultants Group on LinkedIn of more than 200,000 people to start connecting with other free agents today.
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2. Tap into Freelance Marketplaces
Don’t bother searching on Google for freelance gigs because you might be competing with foreign companies who can do work cheaper than you. Gigs that pay well and are in high demand include online marketing, writing specialized material for businesses and media outlets, computer programming and copywriting. Gigs that don’t pay well are blogging, new business development and graphic design. There are websites where you can bid on new projects, blogs with their own job boards and aggregation sites that compile opportunities for you. For starters, you can review thousands of open projects on Elance.com or Freelancer.com and bid on the appropriate ones that match your skill set. Next, you can submit your résumé to job boards on niche blogs, like jobs.problogger.net, for blogging gigs. Finally, you can use aggregation sites like Indeed.com to explore thousands of freelance jobs by keyword. By signing up for these services, it will force you to stay connected to freelance-job postings. As a bonus, you can use Twitter Search to review new opportunities in real time.
3. Sell Yourself Constantly
Whenever you’re not working on a client project, you should be getting your name out there. This may become a full-time job when you start your freelance career, but as you grow your client base, it will turn into a part-time job, consuming about 15 hours out of your week. Create a website that shows case studies, your bio, a client list and samples of your work. From there, you should be going to industry events, blogging about your business, speaking at local associations and conferences, creating an e-mail newsletter to keep clients and potentials engaged, and writing articles for trade magazines and websites. You should also ask your satisfied clients for referrals and, if you have the funds, you should advertise your services using Google AdWords, Facebook Social Ads and LinkedIn. You want as many people to know about you as possible because they will be the word-of-mouth engine that builds your business.
4. Turn Your Projects into a Full-Time Position
One third of all freelancers are looking for full-time work, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some free agents may prefer a full-time salaried job with benefits. While you’re working with clients, search their job boards and ask your contacts about open positions when you see them. Start to look at your client as your employer by working longer hours, proposing solutions to problems and attending company events. Let your client know that you want to work for them full-time, because if they don’t know you’re interested, they won’t think about you when a position opens. Although you may be working harder for the same amount of money, you will be in the best position to capitalize on a full-time position. By putting the effort in, you’re showing them that you’re committed, loyal and deserving of the position.
Schawbel is the managing partner of Millennial Branding, a full-service personal-branding agency. He speaks on the topic of personal branding, social media and Gen Y workforce management for companies such as Google, Time Warner, Symantec, CitiGroup and IBM. Subscribe to his updates at Facebook.com/DanSchawbel.