Some professionals have found they can earn six figures when they go solo.
High-end gig work in consulting, marketing, writing and project management has gained more traction during the pandemic, independent consultants and recruiters for such project-based work say.
Once viewed as an off-ramp for executives drifting toward retirement or a life-raft for those struggling to re-enter the workforce after a break, independent consulting has emerged as a viable, and even attractive, option in today’s hot job market. Many professionals see the perks: more money, flexible hours and control over the type and amount of work performed. Companies can tap a significantly broader talent pool to work remotely they struggle to hire all the full-time staff they need.
The share of US workers categorized as freelance, which includes all types of gig workers, remained steady at 36% in 2021. But the number of skilled freelancers within that group—those providing services in high demand like computer programming, writing, business consulting, Marketing and information technology—expanded, as temp workers declined, according to a survey of 6,000 working US adults conducted by freelance platform Upwork in 2021.
“I’d be bored if you gave me a full-time job now,” says Krish Venkata, 43 years old, who made the leap to independent consulting last March.
The healthcare process-management expert says the consistently steep learning curve of new clients and new projects suits him. Mr. Venkata now earns twice what he was making before in a full-time job, only now he works on one or two three-month-long projects at a time.
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There are trade-offs. Mr. Venkata says he works more hours from his Indianapolis-area home each day than he did, without the job and the security of being with a major employer. (He’s able to do this because he’s married to somebody with great health insurance.)
His yearlong plan is a new work-life balance desired by many: Work enough to fulfill his mid-six-figure financial goals, which he expects to accomplish in eight months of work each year. A motorcycle enthusiast, he also plans to do the more than 13,000-mile ride from Ushuaia, Argentina, to San Francisco, and has a training ride on the books for June and July—something he’d never have the time to do while holding down a full-time job.
Nearly 80% of those surveyed by Upwork said control over their schedule was a key motivator for pursuing freelance work, while 73% said the same about location flexibility. A similar share said independent consulting allows them to pursue work they find meaningful.
Jody Greenstone Miller co-founded and helps run Business Talent Group LLC, which connects independent consultants with companies looking to staff projects and fill interim executive roles. Before the pandemic, roughly 80% of projects she recruited for had an in-person component. Today 90% of those projects are all-remote, she says.
The most in-demand skills from employers looking for high-end gig workers: project management, market landscape and research, organizational design and workforce planning.
These gigs can be found through firms like BTG, clients that workers may have known through previous full-time roles and, many emphasize, active networking.
Employer expectations of independent talent can be a lot higher than they are for their own employees, Ms. Miller says. “You have to continue to prove yourself, and you also have to be able to walk into an org and be effective really fast,” she says.
Cory Krall, who led student recruitment and family engagement for a network of charter schools, was initially unsure she could find enough clients to succeed on her own.
“It was hard to say, ‘I’m going to do this,’ until I knew someone was going to give me the chance,” says Ms. Krall, who is 34 and found her first client, a charter school, through a previous boss. “I definitely had this impostor syndrome feeling of, ‘Is someone going to pay me for my expertise?’”
While Ms. Krall anticipated earning less than her previous salary during her first year on her own, she’s now on track with several clients to earn more. She says her bonus is being home in the afternoon to greet the school bus when her older daughter starts kindergarten this fall. She has to fire up her laptop to work once the children are asleep, but the trade-off is worth it.
“Working through the pandemic, trying to keep my kids safe and happy—I don’t think I even realized how exhausting that was,” she says. “Having the space to feel like I’m choosing how to spend my time feels like a real luxury.”
For Brad Roller, family time was also the main driver in his decision to become a contractor. Remote work meant he’s only left his Atlanta home once for work since making the move to independent consulting on product strategy and project leadership in February 2021.
“I kind of decided I never wanted work to get in the way of taking my girls to soccer practice,” says Mr. Roller, 41.
He bills around 40 hours each week, arranging his schedule so that he can drop off his 6- and 9-year-old daughters at school and be at soccer games in the late afternoon. He also allows for a week or two of downtime between projects, a significant change from his management-consulting days when he spent much of his time on the road. Without overhead expenses, he expects to ultimately earn more this year—and work less—than he did in his previous role.
Write to Kathryn Dill at email@example.com
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