Advancing

Get Over Negative Ideas About Contract Work

contract work

One of the strange gifts of the recession is that it lifted the shame many people used to feel about layoffs.

We all know downsizing is a way for corporate employers to meet short-term financial goals, not necessarily a rejection of the specific employees who lose their jobs.

But some people still feel a stigma about contract work.

Although hiring has improved, many people are finding their main post-recession employment career options are “flexible” situations. Intuit predicts that 40% of the U.S. work force will be contingent workers—meaning freelancers, temps and contractors—five years from now.

For high-producers with sought-after skills, consulting or freelancing can result in an  equivalent or even higher income than a professional job. Still, many professionals don’t give these opportunities a second thought. They want a full-time job or no job.

It’s not surprising. Aside from the millennial generation, many Americans grew up with the idea that a traditional job with benefits was the best, most respectable option—and that freelancers are pathetic folks who “starve.” As a result, many people in the workforce don’t feel they are worthy of professional respect unless someone in authority has given them a title and an office.

That can lead to choices that cut off exciting career options.

Last year, I read an article about laid-off executive who was stringing together low-paying work such as driving a cab—while his family struggled financially. I asked Roy Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, why someone so well qualified would not instead support his family by taking on a bunch of higher-paying project work—which I knew was abundant in his field. Wouldn’t that route keep his skills fresher and help him network? Cohen had an interesting answer: Shame.

Cohen’s take, as the executive coach that he is, was that the executive could mentally hold onto a past corporate identity if he did work that seemed like a stopgap, as in, “I’m driving a cab until I find a new job in the C-suite.” “It’s a little mind trick,” said Cohen. But if that same exec publicly identified himself as doing work he saw as having a lower status than his most recent staff job, it would be an ego blow.

It’s an interesting theory—and I think it has some weight. I have noticed a similar mindset in people I know who were laid off from professional jobs two or three years ago, have never “gotten back in” because they couldn’t replace a plummy job they lost with an equal one and now reluctantly rely on a spouse’s income.

If you find yourself in that situation and want to get back into the workforce, I would encourage you to look at a 2014 report from MBO Partners, which studies the freelance economy. About 2.7 million independent workers, or 15% of freelancers, generate $100,000 in annual revenue or more, the report found. Interestingly, 56% of these six-figure earners are 50 years old or older.

Yes, we’d all like to get paid benefits. But this is an era where if we don’t make new economic trends work in our favor, we will get sidelined by them. “Everyone knows someone who can never be in a relationship because they have too many conditions,” says Cohen. The same thing can be true in careers—unless we are willing to rethink the ways we define valuable work.

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.