Preparing for the independent workforce

What happens when companies no longer favour candidates adorned with the accolades of formal education over the wit and abundance of independent consultants, freelancers, and contractors?

The answer to such a question could potentially upend our whole education system, causing universities to go bankrupt and schools to permanently close their doors. It sounds catastrophic, and yet we’re already seeing such effects — with universities racking up the debt and millions of graduates left without work — already happening in several places around the world.

Despite a few outlier initiatives, very little is being done to address the growing divide between the preparation for life and work and the reality of the modern workforce. We’re living in an economy in which alternative work arrangements are growing at a faster rate than traditional full-time jobs. Leaders are consistently choosing the flexibility of independent workers over in-house employees. Major corporations like Google are pretty much run by — and couldn’t be where they are without — independent and temporary workers. But yet we still spend our youth going to school to learn about redundant subjects, cramming for exams, and submitting numerous essays and assignments that never again see the light of day.

Formal education is arguably simply about gaining the credentials to enter a full-time role that can see you through to retirement. It therefore does almost nothing to help you to succeed in the booming economy of short-term engagements, contracts, gigs, and projects. With that being the case, how are people to build the skills necessary to succeed as part of the growing independent workforce?

Start building a portfolio of gigs

Everything we do in preparing ourselves for our careers is about landing a job and not finding work. Even LinkedIn is more geared toward building a solid list of employment positions than a portfolio of gigs and work experience.

One reason for this is that career services at universities are stuck in tradition. In warranting their high costs and qualifying students to begin supporting themselves, they place most of their focus on placements, internships, graduate schemes, and full or part-time positions with large, well-known companies. The gig economy, with its millions if not billions of — albeit unstable and unregulated — work opportunities, barely even gets a mention.

To succeed in the independent workforce, only having a university diploma or degree isn’t going to get you very far. More desirable is a background of working on a diverse array of projects with different companies and organisations, for the C.V-boosting experience but also the demonstration of scarce skills like initiative and leadership. According to the Human Capital Report 2016, the skills we pick up whilst working will have more bearing on future employability than where we studied or our previous positions.

The gig economy is often thought to be only applicable to people in certain industries. But everyone can find contractual work that is relevant in the independent economy. Take research, writing, editing, and social media — these are all skills that are going to be essential to building your own brand and succeeding as an independent worker, whether you’re a musician, physician, architect, or baker. 

Arm yourself with basic business skills

It used to be that only those studying an MBA or running a company needed to know how to do things like balance a balance sheet, run a back office, and negotiate contracts. But now such business knowledge and acumen is considered all but essential for the future of the work.

It’s not that everyone needs to know how to set up a limited company and outsource. Most people in the gig economy work full or part-time jobs and carry a side gig or two to make a little extra money. Professors are a good example as they’re often encouraged to engage in things like advisory work, paid research, board positions, and speaking engagements.

They’re not the best example though as many people entering the gig economy don’t have the backing of a university and years of formal education behind them. For that, it’s key to master basic business skills and learn things how to do branding, draw up consulting contracts, and deliver marketing strategies. Entering the independent workforce fresh out of formal education is daunting as most institutions don’t teach any of these skills. Fortunately, you can learn them elsewhere, and pretty much everyone by default leaves with the skills and initiative to be able to browse the web and find them.

Even if you don’t and never plan to be a part of the independent workforce, it’s a good idea to prepare for it. Whether it’s to help with taking some time off your full-time job, to fund a house move, or because more businesses are choosing to work only with independent workers, it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself in it.


Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.