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Free Agents on the Move

Human capital is one of the keys to success in any industry. It is especially important to scientific industries such as pharmaceutical, where knowledge is the name of the game. It continues to be an important focus for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies seeking to develop strategies to attract, develop and retain top talent.

by Rich Pennock
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In today’s tough economic environment, more and more professionals are discovering the benefits of self-employment. According to a recent survey conducted by Kelly Services, Inc., slightly more than one-quarter of the U.S. working population is self-employed, a trend fueled by the current economy.

The web survey, representing all four generations in the workforce—Silent Group, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y—showed that 26 percent classify themselves as freelance professionals or “free agents”, up from 19 percent in 2006. The term “free agent” comprises individuals freelancing with or without the support of a staffing agency, including independent consultants, temporary and contract employees, and entrepreneurs and business owners with or without staff.

Free agents are often essential to a functioning business during tough economic times because of the flexibility they provide employers as more work becomes project based.

Just who are these free agents? They are the fastest growing and likely the largest group of workers in America, with rapid international growth, as well. According to the survey, more than one-quarter of traditional employees are likely to consider working as free agents in the future.

So why do individuals work as free agents?

First, free agents define success in a different way than traditional workers. To them, it’s not about making it to the top of the company’s hierarchy. It’s more about doing well in their profession, acquiring more experience, improving their skills and being the best at what they do.

Second, free agents need to fit their work into their lifestyle, not their lifestyle into their work.

And third, free agents have a high degree of self-confidence in their employability and skills.

Free agents have three main attitudes in common: The way they define success; their commitment to fitting their work into their lifestyle; and their autonomous belief in themselves and their ability. To be a free agent, generally speaking, one must have all three of these characteristics.

The increase of free agents is driven by several workplace trends. These trends include shortened job-life cycles, the increase of project work, the acceptance of the new work style, and the emergence of new technology.

A job cycle is how long a job will have a purpose, so that it merits a salary and justifies hiring a person. In today’s workforce, many people are in jobs that did not exist, in locations that did not exist, supporting products or programs that didn’t exist as little as five years ago. Job-life cycles have shortened dramatically in the last decade. Many people are routinely changing jobs more frequently than they used to—perhaps 14 or 15 times in the course of a career. Much of this movement is triggered by the shortened job-life cycles.

The second trend driving the increase of free agency is the rise of project work—work that has a fixed beginning and a fixed end, without an expectation that the position will become permanent.

The third trend is society’s acceptance of the new work style. Research on various demographic groups, including those college-aged, indicates that, free agent or not, a long-term commitment to a particular company is no longer trendy or cool, and may not even be desirable.

It’s not just college kids who’ve adopted these attitudes. It’s the Silent Group, employees between the ages of 68 to 75, who have been there, done that, and aren’t going back. They’ve seen firsthand the myth of “lifetime employment” and so many of them have chosen to join the freeagent workforce. In fact, the oldest respondents to Kelly’s survey, the Silent Generation, included significantly more freelancers than younger generations (38 percent compared with 26 percent overall).

In summary, three of the most important factors in the increased free agent workforce are the shortening of job-life cycles, the rise of project work, and the acceptance of the new work style—all of which are enabled by new technology.

As managers, when you think about managing a blended workforce, think in terms of people constantly moving in and out of your company. And whether they’re employed by you or working on your behalf, they should be considered a truly important asset of the organization.

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