The freelance workforce is growing, especially in tech

A new Upwork report says freelancers like the flexibility and creative opportunities the marketplace offers

Amidst the staggering unemployment rates during the coronavirus, there is an area of the U.S. workforce that has grown: the number of freelancers. A new report released today by Upwork, an online platform that matches employers and freelancers, shows two million more Americans are freelancing this year than last. That’s an eight percent increase over 2019 to 59 million workers.

The report Freelance Forward defines freelancers as “independent professionals and business owners who earn money providing skilled services to clients.” It’s likely the pandemic’s furloughs, layoffs, and business closures had a hand in some workers’ decisions to strike out on their own, according to Upwork’s senior director of talent success, Nancy Van Brunt.

“It’s common for people to turn to freelancing during economic downturns for extra financial security or as a result of becoming unemployed or furloughed,” says Van Brunt.

“Unlike other downturns, however, the ability to work remotely during COVID-19 has been critical and some may have turned to freelancing because of a new ability for them to do so. Regardless of why they started, many professionals find the benefits they realize from freelancing hard to give up. Forty-eight percent of freelancers who began working independently already see it as both a full-time and long-term career opportunity and 96 percent are likely to freelance in the future.”

(Photo: Upwork)

Half of the 6,000 freelancers who responded to the survey were freelancers before COVID-19 and provide skilled services such as computer programming, IT, and business consulting. Those who started freelancing since the start of the pandemic are in the finance, business operations, and computer and mathematics industries.

Since March, Upwork has seen an increase in independent workers who have tech skills in areas including web and mobile design, web development, digital marketing, and customer support.

Whether the timing was of their choosing or not, Van Brunt says the global transition to working from home for an employer or themselves has drawn many to consider freelancing.

“One of the more interesting yet not-so-surprising findings is that remote work plays a role in driving consideration to freelancing,” she says. “The survey found that after working remotely due to COVID-19, 58 percent of non-freelancers see freelancing as a legitimate career option moving forward. When asked why, 73 percent say they’ve been more productive while being remote. There’s no putting the genie back into the bottle now that workers have had a taste of what it’s like to break through the boundaries of the traditional 9-5.”

Hiring managers are finding freelancers are a resource that’s helping them through the shifting needs of the pandemic. Almost three out of four hiring managers are maintaining or increasing the number of freelancers, and close to half anticipate hiring more in the future. Van Brunt says independent professionals are regarded as highly skilled talent who are quickly accessible to help scale teams up or down as needed.

“Because of this greater propensity to work remotely, it was interesting to see that so many freelancers trained and/or consulted their clients on this new way of work,” she says. “From the basics on how to work remotely to how to effectively manage projects online, freelancers’ expertise and experience working remotely and independently was extremely valuable during the pandemic.”

In addition to being able to work from home (or the location of their choosing), there are four other top benefits freelancers enjoy:

  • Freedom and flexibility to choose their projects, control their rate, and maintain their own schedule. Whether they take on full-time work or focus solely on one-off projects, the decision of where and when to work, as well as on what they work is up to them.
  • Financial independence is limited only by the number of clients they take on and the business they generate. The study found that of those who quit a full-time job in order to freelance, 75 percent of say they earn the same or more in pay than when they had a traditional employer, and they’re doing so on their own terms.
  • Variety and choice to choose which projects appeal to them. They can target only those jobs they find creatively challenging and fulfilling. Freelancing websites like Upwork can be a matchmaker for clients located anywhere. Their next client could be just around the corner or on the far side of the planet.
  • Increased economic opportunities that can also accommodate life circumstances. Many professionals turn to freelancing because of personal situations, including health issues and family obligations, which make it difficult for them to have a traditional job. Freelancing allows these individuals to take care of themselves and those at home, providing them with the flexibility, control, and time to do so.

While no one demographic is better suited than another, new college graduates – more than any other generation – are pursuing freelancing. Half of the Gen Z workforce (ages 18-22) have freelanced in the past year and more than a third of those started since the onset of COVID-19.

“As Gen Z enters the workforce, they’re increasingly choosing non-traditional ways of working that are better suited to their desired lifestyle than a traditional 9-to-5 job,” says Van Brunt. “More than any other generation, these digital natives are seeking work they’re passionate about that comes with greater work life balance.”

While formal education may not be required, having a relevant skillset and continuing to develop and improve on that skillset through webinars, professional development, and certifications can keep all professionals current.

“Also remember that not all sought-after skill sets are technical. Consider focusing on your soft skills which will help you boost your ‘EQ’ and allow you to better service clients,” Van Brunt says.

Here are Van Brunt’s top tips to strike out on your own as a freelancer:

Be service-oriented by providing clear and frequent communication, strong project and time management, and follow-through to your clients. This initiative and accountability can help you deliver beyond the initial project and develop strong long-term relationships.

Specificity is key when marketing yourself. Focus on a specialty and a specific area to show you have a deep understanding of the ins and outs of an industry or skill.

Develop a clear business strategy that spells out the type of work you do and the type of client you’re targeting, beyond the initial contract. The most successful freelancers are trusted partners who can continue helping their clients drive business impact.

Click here to read the Upwork report Freelance Forward.