Many people become contractors because of personal need; they would prefer a traditional job but for whatever reason that regular job isn’t available. But a number of them change their minds and decide to stay in contracting – why is that? One study on workers forced out of regular employment and into freelancing found that the “conversion” rate of people who preferred more independent employment was over 25%. What balances out the challenges of contracting and makes it a preferred employment option?
By far and away, the most often mentioned explanation is the relative lessening of what we call organizational politics. For some people, getting involved in why various people do what they do at work and the attempt to influence future organizational decisions causes too much aggravation and uses too much energy. Put in a more positive mode: contract workers feel that they can focus on the work to be done and the objectives to be accomplished. People for whom this is important also often point out that they can more easily provide the technically correct answer vs. the politically sensitive one when management is making decisions.
A second big draw to contracting is the variety. Some people crave the challenge of new environments. In addition, from a career perspective, variety leads to a better experience base and can make workers wiser about the projects they are willing to take on. Furthermore, variety can also make for better career development choices because multiple experiences mean you are more likely to see trends in the work as they develop.
And, of course, flexibility and greater autonomy are also big draws for many. Being able to work hard when you work but also have time to be involved in other facets of your life and career is really important to some. This is just one form of autonomy that comes from more independent employment. Choosing your work focus, your employers, and how you develop your skills are other facets of autonomy in a long list of options.
A more ideological perspective on this autonomy was reported by Barley and Kunda. They described a number of contractors preferring that type of employment because they were not lulled into thinking they had a permanent job. This, they believed, was more in line with the true nature of the working world today and was a constant reminder of the need to stay sharp in their work.
Yes, contracting has some drawbacks – most notably the lack of a benefit package, ineligibility for unemployment and protection from some discrimination, the need to spend larger amounts of time finding work, and the lack of access to tax-free accounts for various sanctioned purposes. But for many people, the pluses out-weigh the minuses.
While academics have predicted that the addition of a large number of contract workers would lead to conflict and resentment between the traditional employees and the contractors. That potential problem has not become an issue. Furthermore, the increasing use of contract workers in the U.S. workplace means there will be room for more converts.
Celia and John Stanworth, 1997, Reluctant Entrepreneurs and their Clients – The Case of Self-Employed Freelance Workers in the British Book Publishing Industry, International Small business Journal, 16(1), 58-73.
Barley and Kunda, 2006, Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies: Itinerant Experts in the Knowledge Economy, Princeton University Press.
Sally Power, Ph.D. is a writer, researcher, and personal consultant accelerating successful career transitions.