Freedom, That's What I Want: Why Engineers Prefer to Gig
Younger engineers want to gig. Older engineers want to gig. The market is becoming more and more conducive to their gig-oriented lifestyle preference. Here's why it makes sense to accommodate.
Think of a contract engineer like Dave Mathews Band…
In 2013, Dave Matthews Band were the highest-grossing live act, pulling in $40 million from shows alone. They’ve made $500 million from touring over the course of a decade. But they’ve made virtually no money from album sales, and even less when you a factor in a long history of record labels paying artists pennies on the dollar, while executives and producers get to enjoy the privilege of full-time salaried jobs with health insurance and pension plans.
But at the end of day, Dave Matthews Band is doing fine. Dave Matthews Band has options. Dave Matthews Band has security. And it’s all because Dave Matthews Band has gigs.
Engineers, more and more, are finding a gig-based lifestyle to be most desirable. 35% of our workforce is already made up of gigging employees. And that number is only going up.
Skilled engineers, like skilled musicians, have a distinct, quantifiable value. And when they know their value, they can call the shots and choose their own destiny. Because of that, engineers who prefer contracts over permanent work are a lot like cats: free-spirited and unpossessable.
But how do you attract a free-spirit? How do you flag something as precious as a cat in a hot window to come park itself right on your lap? To get the answer, start by asking yourself this: is what you offer worth a cat’s time?
Here’s the truth about gigging:
Younger people do it.
One in three millennials are independent workers. And this isn’t because they’re forced to, it’s because they choose to: in fact, 63% of freelancers gig by choice.
"We now have a generation of workers who never had full-time jobs," says Can Erbil, an economics professor at Boston College who studies the labor market. "That is not the exception but more the norm for them."
Logically, one might think a full-time job is where all the security is but not necessarily true. Millennials who’ve unsuccessfully tried to find work in the wake of the 2008 Recession, or who’ve seen their parents get laid off from their full-time jobs, have never come to find any inherent stability in the premise of full-time work, especially when the world of gigging has proven much easier to hack into. For millennials, there is attainable financial security in gigs.
Older people do it.
54% of older adults say they aren’t interested in working full-time any more. And a lot of that stems from their own life experience, many older workers having put a lot of years into full-time careers only to get laid off. So their embracement of gigs is actually a pivot-shift into a place of empowerment from a place of unpredictability and powerlessness, as a once-committed employee scorned for their loyalty.
Another reason older workers choose to freelance is so they can maintain flexible income options when they eventually retire and want to more sustainably scale back to a part-time work schedule.
Apart from downsizing, the other risk for older workers that comes with a full-time job is stagnation.
15-year IT veteran and author of the book Free Agent: The Independent Professional's Roadmap to Self-Employment Success, Katy Tynan says, “Things tend to stay the same within an organization; you don't have to rapidly learn new things."
“You end up molded into what they need you to be, and then if they don't need you anymore, you're out there in the market with limited skills," says Ron Pastore, a 37-year old programmer who worked for 10 years in various full-time software engineer positions before ultimately deciding to pursue the gig lifestyle. "You have to jump through all sorts of hoops just to learn a new technology.”
Steve Rock, Technical Recruiter at Hollister Staffing, has spent much of the last six years matching candidates with permanent positions at tech companies. Being a perm placer, he speaks mostly to the advantages of a perm position: i.e. job security, insurance benefits, PTO, 401K match, equity, sense of belonging, etc.
Rock says that his clients want to hire engineers based on what they already know and can bring to the table, not for what skills they want to learn on the fly.
It’s becoming status quo.
The world is quickly moving in the direction of gigs. According to one study, there are 55 million Americans doing freelance work, contributing $1 trillion to the economy annually. In addition, 54% of freelancers started earning money within a year of leaving their full-time jobs, and 79% say they feel more respected, empowered, and excited to start the day as freelancers compared to the latter.
Life as a freelancer nowadays is completely viable, and in some cases even more ideal than the alternative—both financially and lifestyle-wise. Even while more money and less benefits is the typical trade-off, public healthcare access through the Affordable Care Act makes a pretty good supplemental option for those foregoing the company suite.
Worker’s rights are even starting to extend over to gig-workers; this month, Washington legislator Monica Stonier introduced a bill that would require companies who use freelance labor to contribute to a portable benefits fund to help offset the costs of health insurance, paid time off, retirement, and worker’s compensation. Last year, New York City passed a bill aimed at preventing wage theft and making sure freelancers get paid on time and in full; the name of that bill, which was signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio, is the ‘Freelance Isn’t Free Act.’
Why they want it.
One word: freedom.
In 2013, a program manager named Erik Kennedy left Microsoft at the age of 25, after only three years with the company being hired straight out of engineering school.
He explains his reasoning thusly: “Hypothetically, my boss's boss's boss's boss's boss could make a decision that could affect what I did on a day-to-day basis. I wanted a little more freedom and was willing to take a little more risk.”
Kennedy, whose UI/UX expertise is in very high demand, doesn’t have a hard time finding work. And after two and a half years working on his own accord, he says, "I make money at about the same rate [as I did at Microsoft], but I've taken off more time for travel since becoming a freelancer.”
He even got married and took an 8-month honeymoon around the globe, saying “It's such a millennial thing to do, and we would have never been able to do that if I had a full-time job.”
Michael Ellis, Director of Contract Technology Recruiting at Hollister Staffing, agrees that flexibility is a big part of what attracts Tech professionals to contracting: “Many are able to take 6-9-month contracts, then go on a vacation, and come back on their own timeline. You are truly free to do whatever you want between contracts without anyone checking in on you.”
Having a flexible work schedule is the reason 42% of freelancers choose to gig, while 68% are simply interested in making extra money.
Coming from the perm end of recruiting, Steve Rock says, “Contract tech employees see their ‘stability’ not in the employer or role, but in their own skill-set. They are prepared to trade many perm benefits for a larger per-hour rate and the flexibility of moving in and out of projects/opportunities with limited attachments.”
He adds, “If you are willing to ride some of the ebbs and flows, a good engineer will always find opportunity.”
Ellis says, “Good developers can pick and choose which projects they want to work on, allowing them to make sure they’re always advancing their technical knowledge.”
Why embracing it makes sense.
Contractors are sharper and more versatile as a result of their ability to adapt to a constantly-changing tech marketplace. They are unburdened by a siloed mindset, which means they can bring a lot to the table for any company seeking growth by way of outside-the-box thinking.
Your best chance at getting the best employee may very well be to cater to their schedule, as opposed to expecting them to fold into yours completely.
So if we reuse the cat metaphor—everyone wants to pet the cat. As much as you may covet that cat’s wonderful attributes, and feel inclined to keep that cat as an in-house pet, that cat was built to roam the countryside. When Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Amazon are all here for the grooming, make the best of any attention you can get. Which might just mean putting out a milk dish to help make your case.