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Free Agency

It’s a common refrain heard within nearly every business circle today, but only because it’s true: The world of work has changed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the use of contingent workers, or “free agents,” across nearly every global industry.

by Alan Edwards
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Will Organizations Embrace the Trend as Part of Their Workforce Strategy?

It’s a common refrain heard within nearly every business circle today, but only because it’s true: The world of work has changed.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the use of contingent workers, or “free agents,” across nearly every global industry. The practice isn’t new, but the attention it gets today is.

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In reality, the rise of the free agent has been a slowburning, yet powerful, trend. More than a decade in the making, it’s at the heart of this new world of work. Extreme global competition and a new economic reality will keep it going. The use of contingent labor, however, will ultimately thrive because of the potential advantages it provides to both employers and the people who have the skills to take control of their careers.

As a manager in the sciences, perhaps you are seeing firsthand the value of contingent labor. The science industry, after all, is uniquely positioned to benefit from the free-agency culture—and not just because of the greater efficiency and cost savings that come with it.

The latest research into the culture of free agency bears this out.

Consider first the broad picture. Contingent opportunities are increasing across all business sectors. As a result, approximately 44 percent of American workers across all industries classify themselves as free agents today, according to the latest research from Kelly Services ®. That’s a 70 percent increase since 2008.

Many organizations are embracing the trend as part of their overall workforce strategy, as free agents now account for more than four out of every ten workers employed in the U.S. Kelly research estimates that the free agent population is at least 20 to 30 percent of the entire global workforce—and growing.

One of the main reasons for this shift is that workers’ attitudes simply have changed when it comes to the notion of a traditional career. Flexibility in work options and the freedom to chart one’s own path, it seems, may really be more attractive than the security that can come from traditional employment.

But now look at who in the jobs marketplace is taking advantage of contingent opportunities. Forget the stereotypes of the past, which cast contingent workers as inferior compared with traditional employees. Research has shown the opposite—that free agents are highly educated, highly skilled, and aware of how much they bring to the table. They also are aware that if they concentrate solely on securing full-time work, they could see other, more lucrative contingent opportunities evaporate. So many are choosing “free agent” status not because they can’t find traditional employment, but because they value the freedom and professional possibilities that come with that choice.

Scientists with advanced degrees and highly specialized skills fit into this category and are increasingly seeking out contingent opportunities, similar to their counterparts in engineering and other high-tech fields. The last ten years, in fact, was the initial growth phase of the science-based free agency culture, and experts agree that we haven’t begun to see the potential of this spike. Contingent opportunities in the sciences and the amount of companies doling them out will grow exponentially over the next ten years and beyond.

This offers strategic advantages for scientific companies around the world when it comes to meeting their business goals. Worries over confidentiality and intellectual capital in the sciences have given way to networks between companies and a project-oriented atmosphere in order to gain a competitive edge. To do this, scientific companies must continually seek out scientists with specialized skills. The free agent work style complements this competitive atmosphere by giving managers access to a new pool of highly qualified talent that can add concentrated value when and where it is needed most.

Scientists who deliberately seek out contingent opportunities are also getting more experience across a broad range of fields, which adds to their knowledge base and marketability. It makes them more enticing to employers who can hire them with confidence knowing that they’ll be able to hit the ground running when presented with a new project or challenge.

Utilizing contingent workers is a way of transferring knowledge that is more efficient and more beneficial to the progress of science as a whole. But there’s another reason behind the trend. Real-world scientific advancements aren’t stuck in an ivory tower. They are part of big business, and dollars and cents are driving the free-agent culture as much as the need for specialized knowledge.

Why? Because along with progress is a terrible uncertainty in the sciences. Companies are still trying to figure out how to compete on a global scale— but with far less economic resources than before. It’s affecting the largest scientific companies in particular, whose products are extremely expensive to develop and manufacture. In one stark example, the world’s biggest drug companies will soon lose the patents for their biggest moneymaking drugs and will need to find new ways to make up the revenue loss. Add to this an increasingly complicated set of regulations on the domestic and global fronts, and it’s easy to see why the science industry would be open to new ways of doing business.

While the great recession might have brought many companies to their knees, others, including scientific ones, realize now that it has also meant the freedom to concentrate on core competencies. By exploring new hiring strategies such as contingent labor, science companies can avoid the costly infrastructure of the full-time hire, allowing them to procure the kind of intellectual capital needed in order to do what scientific companies do best. The result is that companies get the most highly qualified people for the highly specialized projects that are crucial to their bottom line. Non-core tasks, like regulation, can be addressed by free agents as well on an as-needed basis for far less than hiring them full time.

Free agency in the scientific workplace is here to stay. It benefits both employers and the thousands out there who have the knowledge and experience to contribute their skills across the scientific spectrum. Knowledge sharing, project-driven work, coming to grips with a new economy—this is the new reality of the scientific industry, and free agency in hiring is helping it all make sense.