Managing

Free agent nation: Portfolio careers versus job security

Jaclyn Densley /

In times of economic uncertainty and job insecurity, it’s easy to forget that top talent has always been in demand.

Economic figures represent doom and gloom and the endless depressing soundbites are enough to drive many – quite rightly – to despair. But in among this chaos a strange thing is happening: people with in-demand talent are choosing to free themselves from any thoughts of a binding social contract with the corporate world.

People are choosing to embark on the brave new world of a ‘contingent’ career. The free agent, the micropreneur, the freelancer, the temp, the contractor, the interim – these are some of the many names used to describe a portfolio career where projects, content and a challenge well and truly override the mundane search for security.

The nature of a job is also quickly changing. A series of projects form the backbone of most technical careers. The ability to ‘buy to make’ talent is a logical extension of this new way of working. It sits nicely on both the supply and demand side of things.

Sure, corporates utilise this emerging labour option as a way to ‘switch on and off’ flexible talent pools, but this new ‘Facebook’ crowd, for want of a better term, is from a generation predisposed to work on an interim basis. They have witnessed their parents being discarded to the scrap heap with the flick of an email, made redundant after a life of sweat and toil as loyal servants. This mistrust, as well as a healthy dose of social enlightenment, perhaps, drives them on this new pathway of work.

Future security, the golden nest egg, and the concept of ‘saving for a rainy day’ all appear further down the list of priorities in the world of free agent work. I’m sure economic reality and necessity will hit at some stage, but one cannot debate the shift of the brightest and most skilled selecting what I call a ‘self-determination career’, or SDC (thought I’d use those three words so I too could have an acronym!)

But there’s more. The emergence of technology has also been pivotal. Some careers naturally support virtual collaboration. This allows talented individuals to gather in relevant communities, communicate and perhaps form and work rather well on certain types of projects. Social media, collaboration, crowd sourcing and the ability to have ‘360 degree’ discussions is a new and daunting prospect for many corporates. But it’s a revolution and liberator for the very talent that most are looking to engage.

Who knows where it will end, but with most studies predicting about one out of every three people will be in some form of contingent employment by 2020 – by choice or otherwise – I think one thing is clear: companies of all walks of life need to rethink their talent acquisition strategies.

A focus solely on the permanent employee model is outdated and no longer relevant. It does not tell the full story of who is delivering what in an organisation. Harnessing new ways of opening up access and visibility to the non-permanent employee is crucial and leveraging the emerging power of technology and collaborative social media is surely necessary, not just nice to have.

Yes, these are times of economic uncertainty and job insecurity, but things could get a whole lot worse if plans aren’t made to address this significant shift in the workforce. And by ‘address’ I mean to locate all the best talent and woo them to your projects. As we’re always told, it’s people that are the most important asset to any company. Let’s not leave half of them off the radar. 

David Bell is Vodafone’s head of category, HR & Professional Services.

He will be speaking at the Australasian Talent Conference, Contingent Workforce Event, in Sydney on September 11-12. View the conference agenda for more information.

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