Free-Agent Professionals Hit Bumps Along the Way

Romanticizing the free-lance lifestyle can be dangerous. Compared with going the corporate route, it’s mistakenly viewed as idyllic. Nowadays, the term “free-lancer” is giving way to the sexier monikers such as “contract worker” and “free agent.” Or, if you’re at the upper end of the salary and experience scale, the term du jour is “interim executive.”

But, don’t get stuck on any of these titles. They all mean practically the same thing: You’re hustling on your own and moving from project to project for better opportunities and money. The independent contractor is a technical nomad without a clear career path or stability. Sound romantic? It depends on your personality and work habits.

Randy Nelson could write the definitive book on the free-agent lifestyle. He gave up his top technical corporate job to become a free agent — he called himself a “hired gun” — and then went on to run his own executive-search firm. He spent four exciting years moving around the U.S., shuttling from one meaty project to another. The money wasn’t bad either. Mr. Nelson was perfect for the lifestyle. He was talented, experienced, confident and, most important, he enjoyed the challenge of going after projects that someone with less experience wouldn’t be able to handle.

Mr. Nelson isn’t alone. Thousands of techies jump at the opportunity to go where the action is. Part of the attraction is that free agency has been widely touted as a new way of working. Statistics show how much this career option has grown in popularity. In the last quarter of 2000, Giga Information Group Inc. estimated that free-lancers made up 30% of the global information-technology work force. This percentage is likely to rise as corporations struggle to complete projects under fierce deadlines while facing a shallow high-tech talent pool. Yet, despite all the hoopla about the swing toward the free-agent lifestyle, independent contractors actually make up just a little more than 6% of the total work force, a figure that is almost unchanged since 1996, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Currently, 8.2 million workers are acting as independent contractors.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a unit of the United States Department of Labor. It is the principal fact-finding agency for the U.S. government in the broad field of labor economics and statistics and serves as a principal agency of the U.S. Federal Statistical System. The BLS is a governmental statistical agency that collects, processes, analyzes, and disseminates essential statistical data to the American public, the U.S. Congress, other Federal agencies, State and local governments, business, and labor representatives. The BLS also serves as a statistical resource to the Department of Labor, and conducts research into how much families need to earn to be able to enjoy a decent standard of living.

Mr. Nelson isn’t surprised that the percentage of independent contractors within the work force hasn’t changed. For starters, it’s a tough life. Many techies burn out after working long hours on mind-bending projects with impossible deadlines. In Mr. Nelson’s case, the strain of being away from his wife and family ultimately forced him to permanently put away his suitcase. Often, he’d be away for more than a year, sometimes longer. The only time he could see his family was on weekends.

Ideally, the best arrangement is working on assignments near your home. But, no matter where you work, you have to make rapid adjustments to different organizational cultures and get used to always being “the outsider” hired by management to get a tough job done. It’s an assignment many workers can’t handle.

The free-agent lifestyle is even harder in a cooling economy with plummeting tech stocks and massive layoffs, according to Wendell Williams, managing director of human-resources consulting firm in Atlanta, Ga. “It means companies expect blood,” he says. “What with intense competition and more layoffs projected, companies expect 150% from their employees and even more from their contract workers. This precarious market fosters a mercenary mentality on the part of employers.”

Rather than take the free-agent route if you’re laid off, it might be wiser to look for another corporate position, Mr. Williams suggests, especially if you’re in the low- to mid-level salary and skill level. “It’s a lot easier finding projects if you’re highly skilled,” he says. In either case, estimate that it will take six months to get the word out and find projects.

But that doesn’t mean you should completely discount the free-lance lifestyle. Tough as it was, it was a great learning experience for Mr. Nelson. It forced him to stay on top of every technological innovation. It also taught him to be self-reliant and disciplined. “It was a great transitional period for me,” Mr. Nelson explains. “It helped me break away from the corporate mentality and think like an entrepreneur. I wouldn’t be running my own company today if I hadn’t spent a few years working as a free agent. If I were to replay the past, I’d do it all over again.”


By Bob Weinstein

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