Independent professionals are in demand, picky: 5 tips for companies to be a client of choice

As about 7.6 million independent professionals annually provide their skills as contingent or contract-based employees, a report by MBO Partners emphasizes the need to support these in-demand staffers in the new COVID-19 world.

Throughout the past 10 years, the economy has seen a rapid growth in the independent workforce, which includes about 41 million Americans of various ages, income levels and industries, MBO Partners found in its “Client of Choice Report 2020.”

The 2020 study is the fourth such consecutive report to have been conducted. The study was compiled from responses to an online panel-based survey by 3,985 residents of the U.S. age 21 and older.

While the concept of freelance work might bring to mind references to the “gig economy,” MBO Partners says large corporations are increasingly reliant on “skilled independents” or contract employees to get the job done.

Contract workers provide services to corporations on a regular basis and, although the total number of skilled independents has remained level in recent years, MBO Partners notes the number of highly skilled independents has grown for the past eight consecutive years straight — nearly four times more rapidly than the overall U.S. employment rate.

The study found that about 7.6 million professional independent Americans report that they work on a full-time, contract basis, up from 4.5 million in 2011.

While 2020 kicked off with an unemployment rate of 3.5%, the global COVID-19 pandemic has since caused widespread business instability and mass layoffs, with unemployment currently at 11.1% of the U.S. workforce.

“While the outlook for a post COVID-19 workforce remains uncertain, it stands to reason that in order to remain agile and flexible, companies must seek arrangements other than full-time employment to access necessary skills, achieve strategic growth and to fulfill business objectives,” the report noted.

Google stands out as an example in the study, as MBO Partners notes half of the tech giant’s workforce consists of nonemployee labor — a ratio industry experts said may become increasingly common as businesses adapt to a COVID-19 market.

As the pool of highly skilled contract workers continues to grow, MBO Partners notes that employers will need to do more than offer adequate pay to grow their staff. Because many contract employees are able to grow their client list over time, this group of employees has the ability to be more selective about which companies they work for than traditional full-time staff members.

Businesses will in many cases need to provide opportunities for personal and professional development, as well as a sense of community, to best attract in-demand skilled independents, MBO Partners stated.

The report offered five steps for companies to take:

  • Incorporate them into your team
  • Provide opportunities for learning and building skills
  • Build a positive work environment
  • Value their work
  • Create reasonable processes and procedures for onboarding, feedback and compensation.

“Independent professionals are older, better educated and have higher incomes than both the general independent workforce and the American workforce at large,” the report said.

More than 70% of independent professional workers have a four-year degree. Among these highly skilled workers, the average age is 49, and 61% of independent professionals are male, according to the report.

The primary draw to independent work among survey participants was the flexibility to make their own schedules — a factor cited by 68% of respondents — and 40% said they found the ability to choose what types of projects they commit to working on to be the biggest appeal.

Smaller segments of the independent professional workforce expressed other draws to this work. The flexibility to pursue another interest or project was a major factor for 36% of respondents, and 34% said they do independent work in order to work on building their own business.

Consulting work, coaching and research were among the top professions in which about 17% of U.S. independent professionals are employed, the report said, followed by creative services and information technology roles.

MBO Partners notes that as independent professionals find increasing satisfaction in contract employment opportunities, companies will need to distinguish themselves to attract such talent and remain appealing business clients for these workers.

Ninety percent of independent professionals who participated in the report said being treated as a part of the team was a key factor in their job satisfaction, the report said.

“Companies should recognize that independence does not mean isolation and consider how they can make independent professionals feel like they are members of teams,” the report said.

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Providing independent professionals with insight on business goals, inviting contract employees to team events and offering relevant feedback on independent workers’ contributions are among the top methods the study suggests for improving inclusion of these professionals.

“Systematically providing feedback mechanisms and helping independent professionals understand why their work matters will lead to a greater likelihood of becoming a destination client,” MBO Partners explained.

Another key factor to the success of drawing independent workers is providing them with the tools and opportunities to learn new skills. More than 85% of participants said the ability to acquire new skills is an important factor in deciding which clients they work for.

“While (independent professionals) don’t necessarily look to employers to equip them with the skills they need, they do seek opportunities for growth through the challenging work they do for their clients,” the study said.

Independent professionals value professional development as a method of staying competitive in the marketplace, according to MBO Partners.

Although participants did not identify compensation as one of the top reasons for selecting their clients, more than half of respondents said being paid quickly and fairly was an essential factor in contract work, especially when working in technologically advancing fields in which they are aware of how timely and efficient payments can be made.

The report also notes that while some companies may not feel that engaging with independent professionals more intimately is necessary, companies cannot afford to ignore the changes taking place in the workforce.

Traditional businesses may have learned this lesson when facing other key developments, such as globalization, artificial intelligence and data analytics, MBO Partners said.

“Every day, companies face real challenges in optimally staffing their operations for competitive advantage,” the report said. “As they strive to build agile and resilient operations, organizations will need to build greater flexibility into their talent strategy.”

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