More than a third of the workforce in the United States works freelance, which demands a myriad of skills.
Freelancing isn’t the future of work — it’s already here. More than one in three American workers freelance, and the majority view this way of working as a long-term career choice. They work in every major sector and earn nearly $1 trillion in annual income through freelance work alone. Freelancers cite a number of advantages, from autonomy and the freedom to follow their passions, to the ability to set their own schedules.
But while a freelance career can be rewarding, it also carries numerous financial risks and the burden of managing a solo business. In order to be successful, freelancers need in-demand skills and wide-ranging business savvy. Some of the skills most crucial to success are:
To compete, freelancers must be their own marketing and sales departments. The most in-demand freelancers have identified their niches, targeted the right customers, and developed pitches to close the deal. And that’s all before they work on delivering their services.
Understanding your rights
Freelancers have certain rights that protect them against behavioral and financial control by clients. They have the right to work where they want and set their own schedules. It’s essential that freelancers understand their legal rights, and the rights they can establish through contracts, as a foundation for protecting their work.
Strong communication skills and the ability to self-advocate are key attributes of effective freelancers as working with clients is a constant negotiation. And it’s not just about rates. Misunderstandings can easily occur over project scope, working hours, and every other decision that presents itself. Freelancers must be adept in setting expectations, maintaining boundaries, and negotiating favorable contracts.
Freelancers spend about 50 percent of their time on billable work, and 50 percent on non-billable, but necessary, administrative tasks to manage their business. It is critical that freelancers understand how to monetize their time effectively. This means understanding how to set rates, managing tax liability, and budgeting for expenses. And over the long term, they must factor for retirement and savings.
There’s more to self-motivation for freelancers than meeting client deadlines and staying productive. They must maintain the momentum to continually push their business forward. That means setting goals, investing resources to meet them, and evolving their skills and services to meet the demands of an ever-changing market.
Every freelancer needs a supportive community of friends and peers to help with referrals, troubleshoot client problems, and sometimes offer emotional support. Working alone can sometimes feel overwhelming, and strong network of freelancers can help shed light on things like what to charge, which clients to avoid, and how to run day-to-day operations.
With so much on their plates, it’s not surprising that freelancers value training highly and seek it out more frequently than traditional employees. Freelancers Hub, an initiative launched with the Mayor’s Office of Media & Entertainment to empower independent workers in New York City, provided thousands of freelancers access to free professional trainings, legal clinics, tax workshops, and benefits consultations in its first year. It demonstrates the need for better resources for freelancers and is a model that I think more cities should follow.
As freelancers continue to grow in number, success in the 21st-century workplace requires a new set of skills. And workers shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden alone. We need to revamp public education and workforce training programs to prepare workers with the skills and know how to navigate the freelance economy. By offering freelance skills training and providing freelancers with better access to community and resources, we are investing in more sustainable livelihoods for workers. On a larger scale, we must organize to update our safety net so that all workers, employees and freelancers alike, have strong workplace protections and a safety net to protect them.
No one knows this better than younger generations of freelancers, who are at the forefront of this reinvention. Many may never have a traditional job. We need to create a better system to help them and all workers thrive.