Which came first, the freelancing boom or the internet technology that supports it? A recent report from leading online staffing provider Freelancer Limited revealed customer receipts are up 42% year over year. It is clear that online staffing as a segment of the staffing industry is on a tear. Online staffing companies such as Elance, freelancer.com, and oDesk have also notably grown over the course of the last 2 to 3 years. This meteoric growth has captured the interest of the staffing industry, which collectively ponders a proverbial “chicken or the egg” question.
Did these companies’ business model proliferate in response to the organic growth of the freelancer as a component of the modern workforce? Or, did the rise of internet technology and the increased comfort of transacting business online among all types of users drive the growth of full-time freelancing as a career path?
To those who would vouch that the internet made it easier for freelancers to gain access to opportunities, we’d point out that there were always professionals who were more comfortable with the flexibility and autonomy provided by work untethered from the desk and time clock. However, “freelancer as a percentage of the American workforce” was not a metric regularly visited in the 1970’s 80’s or 90’s. By the time the Internet began to truly affect workplace activities in the Eighties – with the rise of telecommuting and the collapse of the economy – the Bureau of Labor Statistics began to keep track of such records.
In 2006, BLS data showed contingent workers (temps, contractors, ICs and freelancers) comprised some 30% of the overall workforce and software company Intuit recently predicted that this figure would reach 40% by 2020. So it is clear that technology is likely a driver of the growth in freelance workers. On the other hand, it isn’t just tech workers swelling their ranks. Freelancers have grown to become a notable fraction of the workforce in nearly every field from professional roles like law, marketing, and finance to creatives like graphic artists and designers.
In either case, the important message to take away here is that the ranks of the freelance worker continue to grow and the Internet surely aids in this migration. This is why it is important to have a strategy to harness the power of both contingent labor and the internet as part of a contemporary workforce management plan. Where do you come down on the issue? Is the web driving a flight to freelance work or would this trend have occurred even without the rise of the internet? The world may never know!