Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 2 February 2014

More freelancing means fewer jobs

The casualisation of employment is increasing. What used to be a practice for the occasional employment of people like musicians journalists and copy-writers is now moving simultaneously up and down the employment chain. It reaches from the boardroom through to the people on the shop floor. Freelancing is becoming mainstream.

Freelancer Limited, trading on the Australian Securities Exchange has just announced that the company has passed the 10 million mark of verified users describing itself as “the world’s largest freelancing outsourcing and crowdsourcing marketplace”. Its global operations connect employers and freelancers to work in such areas as software development, data entry and design, engineering, marketing, accounting and legal services among others.

Self-employment with all its variations is rapidly on the rise; sometimes by choice and sometimes just to put bread on the table. Even at senior executive level the big corporates are increasingly embracing the idea of an executive’s own “consulting company” selling services back to the company and not employing them permanently. Executive adherents to this formula claim tax benefits and expanded life-style options.

Freelancer.com is only one of the companies riding the wave which has resulted in fewer full-time permanent jobs and a very different contract with employers. Elance and oDesk are operating in the same space. Brand South Africa country portal, South Africa.info says “As companies worldwide respond to increasing cost and efficiency pressures South Africa is becoming a favoured international location for business process outsourcing and offshoring”. The people who populate the call centres and the armies of contract workers confirm this.

If contract work is increasing, the question of who negotiates the contract arises. Rock stars and famous folks in Hollywood have agents who negotiate contracts for them and make sure they are not taken for a ride. Who negotiates for freelancers and others on contract? Are we heading to an employment culture where everyone will eventually have an agent? Instead of scouting around for a next job you will simply give the brief to your agent to get on with it. Recruitment companies fulfil some of this role but once the employee is appointed the on-going contact is limited.

One hesitates to mention the controversial labour brokers because of all the abuse they are associated with, but they are tapping into the same seam of workers who need to use a middle man to bring them to a paying employment contract

Multinational companies like Accenture make their living out of the outsourced functions of big business. The increasing numbers of ‘temp’ agencies are evidence that there is a change in the way work gets done.  In-house permanence is no longer the only way.

While there are obvious benefits for employers who don’t want the liability of permanent employees on their balance sheets and while freelancers enjoy a measure of independence and flexibility there are some dark downsides. Insecurity, less permanence, potential for abuse and low access to credit are only some of them. A freelancer floating around in the gig-economy without a permanent job and a secure salary cannot get a housing loan or buy a car on terms or enjoy many of the other benefits that the marketing campaigns of ambitious banks want consumers to have. Many will remain economically marginalised with no real access to credit as these practices take hold.

The old-fashioned notion of a good job with prospects is for a rising number of people especially those approaching the work-place for the first time, an unrealistic expectation. But politicians, who cannot resist the temptation of bragging about how many jobs they will create once elected would want to be more careful. They are peddling an evaporating dream. There are enough of those who are still falling for it. The comforting idea of a permanent job and the security of all that it stands for are too difficult to give up. The permanent full-time job with benefits as a refuge from life’s uncertainties is still a powerful image. The idea of being protected and cared for by a loyal and benevolent employer belongs to the past. There is a need for some re-programming in the workplace and an understanding that there are other ways of making a living. Having a good job in a big company is not the only way to enjoy a full life.

Business Insider reporting on the most promising careers and professions emerging in Africa refers to telecoms engineers, oil and petroleum engineers software and web developers, construction managers as well as pilots and physicians all of which, they say will enjoy strong demand. But these are all careers which can, and probably will be in due course converted to some kind of freelancing or contract model.

Employers will be buying skills and the ability to deliver a specific result. It will no longer be that one simply has to show up. But even people who are active and successful in the freelancing space often still yearn for a permanent job. The vulnerability of being out there on one’s own is overwhelming at times and the thought of a safe and secure job always remains enticing

Freelancing, especially if it becomes the first step toward an entrepreneurial career must not be seen as second prize. Forbes last year published the results of a world-wide Gallup poll where more than 25 million people in 189 countries were asked about their levels of job satisfaction. Their staggering result showed that only 13 % feel fully engaged with what they are doing and no less than 63% say they are disengaged and don’t like their jobs. Of that number 24% say that they hate what they do and are actively disengaged. Causes of all this dissatisfaction inevitably revolve around the poor leadership of businesses and the dislike employees feel for their bosses. They don’t like how they are being managed.

All this unhappiness must be a major cause of lower productivity. Freelancing on the other hand pays people for what is delivered and they manage themselves. There is no need to get sucked into corporate politics and if you don’t like a client you can move on. Does that not sound like a better model and should we not be equipping more people to embrace a freelancing life? It’s not for everyone, but for those rugged souls who cherish their independence it has to be a more satisfying option. DM

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