Recently, Linked-In reminded me that I have been an independent consultant for fifteen years. Thanks to all who called and wrote with congratulations. In fact, I have been either consulting, at a startup (or consulting for a startup) since business school.
I used “freelance” in the title because this word is in need of some rehabilitation. There was a bitter post on Linked-In about how “freelance photographer” means “unemployed guy with a camera.” I get that all the time. I spoke with a recruiter recently who was startled to learn this is really what I do, and not just a placeholder on my resume.
According to McKinsey, there are 49 million of us “free agents,” equal in number to those who do it out of necessity.
I started consulting for a Big Six firm, back when there were six, and I noticed that our projects were always a big deal for the client staff. They felt lucky to be on the client’s once-in-a-lifetime project. We consultants, meanwhile, were continuously assigned to the good projects, client after client. It becomes addictive.
If I were recruiting here, I would recount some groovy projects and then pitch the glamour and excitement – but I have a much more practical argument. When you work for a long time at one company, you accrue specific knowledge about its organization, procedures, and history. If you ever leave that company, the value of this knowledge falls to zero.
I was engaged by GMAC just before the crash. Suddenly, my entire department was shuttered – desks empty, lights out. It was a disaster for the faithful, lifetime employees. Some were out of work for a year. The consultants, however, rapidly found new jobs.
Job security no longer exists, and the good wages, generous benefits and secure retirement that used to be guaranteed with full-time employment are in decline or have disappeared.
It is a little scary not knowing where I’ll be working next year. I won’t deny that. My point about GMAC is that the people who thought they had job security were mistaken – and they were the ones most at risk.
Tom Peters writes that job security does not come from allegiance to your company. It comes from having skills and accomplishments, plus a network of people who know about your skills and accomplishments. This is where the exciting projects come in. When I call around looking for work, I want people to recognize me as “the guy who created Provider Exchange Network,” or something like that.
Changing jobs enhances your value by exposing you to new people, technology, and business models. This has certainly been true for me. F&I is a small community, but it includes dealer groups, software companies, and finance sources. This is great because it allows me to move around without violating any non-competes.
This article in Harvard Business Review echoes Peters’ observation about job security. The author is a B-school prof, who writes that the gig economy is the future. Focus on finding work, she says, not a job. I am lucky that this attitude (and related skills) were drilled into me at Coopers. In case you’re inspired to quit your day job, I’ll follow up with a “how to” article.