Illustration: Erin Aniker


Why more of us than ever are saying no to a permanent job

Freelance and contract working is on the rise. But what are the benefits – and is ditching a full-time job as scary as it sounds?

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By Clare Thorp on

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By now, most of us realise that there’s no such thing as a job for life any more, with the expectation that we will switch jobs – and even careers – several times over the course of our working lives. But an increasing number of people are choosing not to have a job at all – at least not in the traditional sense. Self-employment is on the rise, with the Office for National Statistics reporting that the number of self-employed workers increased from 3.3 million in 2001 to 4.8 million in 2017, now making up 15% of the UK workforce. This figure looks set to rise in the next few years as the contingent workforce continues to grow – whether it’s people who work as freelancers or contractors.

For companies, using contract workers allows them to source the best talent for specific projects, bringing in fresh skills and ideas. For workers, it can offer more varied career prospects, increased earnings and a more flexible way of working.

It can have challenges – a survey by EY found that 47% of contingent workers found it hard to feel part of a team. But, with more companies embracing this way of working in the future (EY’s report also found that, by 2020, financial services companies expect 20% of their workforce to be contingent workers – while in other industries it will reach 40%), contract and freelance workers should no longer feel like outsiders, but part of the norm.

Here, four people who have chosen contracting over a permanent job explain why it works for them.

“I’m always learning and developing my career”

Charlotte Knight runs her own consultancy, helping businesses with change communications and employee engagement

“I’ve been doing contract work for eight years now and have never looked back. Before that, I had a great job as part of the corporate relations team with a FTSE company. I loved my career, but it could mean getting on a plane on a Sunday to be at a meeting in Miami on the Monday.

“I had small children and, when one of my daughter’s first words was ‘blackberry’ – and she didn’t meant the fruit – I realised I wanted a change. I set up on my own as a way to have more time with my children and also to take more ownership of my career. My work tends to be project-based – the shortest contracts I’ve done have been about six months, but a year is more normal. Since October last year, I’ve been working three days a week with EY on a project implementing new technology in the firm. I’m helping communicate what that means for the business and what this new tech is going to do for employees and partners.

“Contracting opens up possibilities – and benefits both sides. It’s a way of getting fresh thinking and sharing best practice. It also means I’m always learning. I might be going into a new business or a completely different sector, or it might just be a new challenge. I get more career development now because of those experiences and because I’m testing myself. I think that’s important. To enjoy your career, you’ve got to always be learning.

I had small children and, when one of my daughter’s first words was ‘blackberry’ – and she didn’t meant the fruit – I realised I wanted a change. I set up on my own as a way to have more time with my children and also to take more ownership of my career

“I very much feel part of the team at EY. I’m a people person. If I’m not part of the team, then it doesn’t work for me, and as a contractor it’s up to you to make that happen. Any team will always welcome fresh thinking and new ideas, but you have to get to know people and let them get to know you. Have coffee with whoever you can. As a contractor, you have to prove your worth quickly. But if you’re good at what you do, committed and willing to invest in relationships, then you can thrive.”

“I love the flexibility and mix of work”

Gemma Bullivant is a freelance HR consultant and executive coach

“Becoming a freelance worker was a conscious decision for me and one that I planned – going part-time at first and doing a mix of permanent and contractor work before making the leap completely. I love the flexibility of the portfolio career, working with a variety of different clients on different challenges. I've helped small SMEs establish an HR strategy, and more established HR directors deliver key projects. I also work as a coach and am focusing on building a specialism in grief coaching, an area that I’m passionate about and something I wouldn’t be able to do if I was dedicated to one company full-time. I mix medium-term contracts – anything from two months to 12, working one to two days a week for a company – with ad-hoc work. I enjoy the mix – ongoing client work provides the opportunity to be part of a team and work on things that need time to evolve, while shorter-term consultancy is more delivery-focused, with the biggest benefit not getting pulled into meetings and a mountain of emails.

Managing it all can be challenging – switching from one client to another means I have to be super-organised. For those thinking of doing it, my advice would be to take a step back and figure out not only what you like doing, but how you like doing it. I like being part of a team. I like delivering things that make impact. And I like building longer-term relationships, so I try to ensure I have a mix of contracts that tick all those boxes.”

“It allows me the freedom to work on other projects”

Sarah Southern helps companies with fundraising and is also a stand-up comedian

“I’ve been self-employed since January this year and work for a range of companies that need fundraising help – such as arts organisations that want to raise money and social enterprises looking for investment through crowdfunding. I’m currently working with a film company that’s seeking investment for a feature film. The lengths of my contracts are varied – I’ve done three-month and six-month stints, and other more ad-hoc work.

“You need to be adaptable to be a contractor, because you’re are going into a work environment that is already established. You need to fit into their rhythm and learn quickly what it is that they are really wanting you to do.

“For me, this way of working gives me the opportunity to pursue other projects, like stand-up comedy. I recently spent a month in Edinburgh doing my show, Wedding Guest Extraordinaire, and I have a weekly podcast by the same name. A conventional permanent job wouldn’t give me that freedom and I’ve found that doing the other stuff makes me a more rounded person to work with, as I’m constantly building new skills. The comedy actually comes in handy in making people feel at ease and developing strong working relationships swiftly, which is a skill you need if you’re a contractor. I’m only eight months in, but I much prefer this way of working.”

“I could never go back to one job – I’d die of boredom”

Vanessa Keys is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist

“I’d been working in the media in permanent jobs for a decade before going freelance in 2015, just before I turned 30. It was something I’d wanted to be for a few years, but it took a while to build up the confidence. Since then, I’ve worked on contracts running anywhere, from three days to six months, working for content and communication agencies and, most recently, an interactive studio that specialises in VR and animation. On top of that, I do ad-hoc freelance work for newspapers and magazines, small content marketing agencies, start-ups, global brands and SMEs.

“Probably the thing I love most about it is the freedom. I own my own time; I decide how much I’m worth, when I want to work and when I don't want to work. When I’m working in-house for a company, I have to be in the office with everyone else, but I’ve had great success negotiating three- and four-day working weeks. I also love how many opportunities come my way. I relish the thought of an email popping into my inbox, asking about my availability – I don't get that ‘rush’ from permanent work.

“Financially, I’m better off, too. You do need to have faith. Every time I hit a slow patch, I think I'm never going to work again – and then I get three jobs at once. The mix can often be super overwhelming and I often over-book myself, but I could never go back to just having one job. I would die of boredom.”


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Illustration: Erin Aniker
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