As times get tougher, many are turning to freelancing and contract work, transforming a trend that was once a lifestyle choice into a matter of economic survival.
Frustrated trying to find full-time work, more people are piecing together a living doing projects, consultancies and part-time gigs from home for an outside employer.
"These are the new jobs," says Sara Horowitz, executive director of Freelancers Union, a nonprofit advocacy group in New York.
Horowitz sees the entire scope of the work-from-home world changing. Today, the new project-to-project, paycheck-to-paycheck economy crosses the spectrum from low-wage workers to highly paid professionals in a variety of industries. People are finding short-term work on job boards, Web sites, professional associations and even former employers.
Not counting the recent surge, freelancers made up 30 percent of all workers, according to the Freelancers Union.
Jacqueline d'Heere of Delray Beach has been working this way for six years. She does contract work on short-term projects to help companies with team building and business development. Lately, she's been getting calls from laid-off friends looking for help. Some, she says, took pay cuts and want to supplement their income.
"I tell them there is tons of work out there," d'Heere says. "Companies do not have the resources to pay full-time workers with benefit packages. I'm a much cheaper alternative."
For some, the stigma of working at home as a free agent has them mumbling apologies. "They tell people, 'I'm just doing this until I get a real job,' " says Kate Lister, co-author of Undress for Success, a soon to be released book on working from home. But more and more, people who are willing — or are forced — to give up the benefits of a 401(k) or corporate-sponsored health insurance are getting comfortable shunning the pointless meetings and annoying office politics: "They are sick of the rat race and they discover this as a way to take control of their lives."
Working freelance can be just as full time as any other job. In fact, freelancers often work longer hours. But, Lister points out, "They do it on their own terms, and that's what counts."
Michelle Goodman, a longtime freelancer (by design, not accident) and author of My So-called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire, says "You can't beat the flexibility."
Of course, completing the assignments are only half the challenge. To survive, freelancers need to market, bill and keep track of taxes.
For some it has been a rude awakening. "They find out you have to spend half the time looking for work and the other half doing it," Goodman says.
Gary Swart is riding the trend. Swart is the founder of Odesk, one of a half-dozen Web sites that pair project work with remote/home-based workers. Last year, outsourcing on Odesk nearly tripled as more companies shifted to using contract workers. "Businesses are looking for better ways to get work done," Swart said. Swart says his site posts more than 100,000 jobs each month requiring a variety of skills.
The drawback is that these sites are populated by people outside the United States often willing to do the work for much less money.
Ender Korkmaz, the 24-year-old founder of Universal Environmental Products in Miami, has built an online air-conditioning sales company tapping into Odesk's remote workers all over the world for short-term graphic design, programming, and marketing jobs. "I would not have been able to find some of the talent locally," he said, at least not for what he's paying them.
The risk for freelancers with the economy in a free fall is collecting payments. Goodman says it's more important than ever to sniff out the financial condition of those who offer contract work: "That might mean asking people at the company or asking other people in the industry."
Goodman says the increased competition hasn't hurt her income. She even subcontracts work to the newbies.
The big question is whether this trend is long term or whether freelancing will fade as the economy strengthens and full-time jobs become available.
"For some, getting a gig here or there won't turn them into an entrepreneur unless they wanted to do that to begin with," Lister says.