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The Growing Contingent Workforce: Talking to Real-life Contractors

Among the growing contingent workforce are freelancers, temporary workers, diversified workers, moonlighters and independent contractors. Each segment presents a different working relationship between the worker and businesses. These workers are hired for short-term tasks, recurring projects or full-time contract work. More and more businesses and individuals are turning more and more to freelancers as a way to expand their staff, introduce experts into their team and build a pool of talent that can meet the demands of their customers when needed.

The result is the huge shift in the workforce we are seeing today. With the proliferation of so many on-demand companies and gig work, the possibilities for work outside of regular 9-5 jobs has attracted people to contract work and all the different ways in which they can participate. It was reported that 57.3 million Americans worked as freelancers in 2017 - that’s about 36% of the U.S. workforce. It is believed that this growing trend means over half of Americans are expected to work as freelancers by 2027.

Here is a look at one such freelancer who has balanced flexibility with innovation to create a successful career that has allowed her to pursue her passions and have control over her own professional and personal goals.

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Vanessa Pierce works as a successful independent consultant in the environmental and social justice advocacy arena.

A closer look: meet Vanessa Pierce

Vanessa Pierce has built a successful career as an independent consultant working in the non-profit sector. Her whole career has been focused on the environmental and social justice advocacy arena. This has also been generally true in regards to her career as a consultant, although she has occasionally done some work with some for-profit companies.

In addition to serving as a talent scout for the Climate Breakthrough Project and helping support innovators with break-though ideas for stopping climate change, Vanessa also helps non-profits with things like strategic planning, management coaching, team-building and theory of change development.

Vanessa opened up about her experience freelancing in the Bay Area, being a working mother, and what she attributes as the driving force behind more and more people turning to contract work as their main source of income.

What makes contract work so attractive and rewarding

As a new mom, Vanessa describes the biggest reward to freelancing as the ability to have flexibility around her own hours and set her own schedule.

“I have crafted my schedule so that I can have a leisurely morning to enjoy hanging out with my baby before he goes to daycare. Not having to worry about rushing into an office or getting somewhere on time is a huge stress relief and helps me feel more present in the mornings with my 13 month old.”   

Another aspect of being a consultant that Vanessa describes as a huge asset is the exposure to a number of different projects and organizations. “I tend to like working on a variety of topics and projects, and I find that by having different clients and working on different issues, I am learning a lot and expanding my own personal network.

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Real challenges contractors face

There are tons of challenges with being a contractor. The ones described by Vanessa are common themes that come with hustling. Additional ones are outlined in Entrepreneur such as the struggles of self-promoting, self-regulating your work-life balance, having to wear more hats than expected, chasing after payments and the sneaky snope creep - those extra requests clients make that start off small but end up adding significantly to your scope of work and cut into billable time.

The ones top of mind for Vanessa have to do with being a new mother. “As a working mom who is breast-feeding, it can feel awkward and difficult to work in time to pump when I am meeting with clients, attending conferences, or in daylong events. On busy days with lots of coffee chats, lunch meetings, and client visits, I will often find myself having to schlep my pump around town, and trying to squirrel away 15 minutes here or there to pump in a public bathroom or a client's office while also trying to figure out how to keep my milk cold is a bit exhausting.”

The federal Break Time for Nursing Mothers law requires employers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to provide basic accommodations for breastfeeding mothers at work. These accommodations include time for women to express milk and a private space that is not a bathroom each time they need to pump. While employers are required to provide a lactation accommodation, however, consultants don’t have that same base of support.

The other challenge for freelancers has to do with time off.

“This is the flip-side of the flexibility coin,” says Vanessa. “With nobody there to give you paid time off, you have to really create your own internal framework around how much vacation, sick, non-work time you want  (or need) to build into your schedule.”

Like most freelancers, the term “time is money” rings especially true. As a result, contractors put a lot of pressure on themselves to constantly be engaging in activities that are billable hours.

Even though contractors are often working outside of normal business hours, they have to be able to fit in day to day necessities within their day. These things can include things like going to the doctor, pumping for your baby, or fixing and eating lunch. Additionally, business development becomes an important part of work. This can include anything from schmoozing to drafting up a proposal that somebody may or may not accept.

“As an employee, I never gave a second thought to doing those things.  But as a consultant, I've become acutely aware that none of those activities are billable. So then you have to figure out how to structure your rates in a way that will help pay for the fact that you won’t be able to bill for every working hour of the day.”  

What people should consider before going into freelance work

The challenges mentioned above are all ones to be considered carefully: in regards to being a working mother, scheduling day to day things, the pressure of focusing on billable work and wearing a business development hat.

Additionally, there are ways to soften the “time is money“ pressure and always having billable hours. What Vanessa does is she sets an internal goal for herself around how much money she wants to bring in on a yearly / monthly basis.

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She creates an agreement with herself so that once she knows she’s on pace to hit that number, she can lighten up, and then “focus on enjoying and appreciating the flexibility to build in an unexpected day off when friends are in town. Or a day to recover from a busy week. And I also made sure to adjust my rates so that I could build in real vacation and sick time for myself this year. The peace of mind I’ve gotten from that has been significant.”

She has also found that having one anchor client that takes up at least 50% of her time is a great way to have stability while also giving her space to look for new and other interesting projects that she wants to work on.  




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