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Freelancing Expertise

Freelancing Expertise: Contract Professionals in the New Economy

Debra Osnowitz
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press,
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Freelancing Expertise
    Book Description:

    Contract work is more important than ever-for better or for worse, depending on one's perspective. The security once implied by a full-time job with a stable employer is becoming rarer, thereby erasing one of the major distinctions between "freelance work" and a "steady gig." Why hang on to a regular job for the sake of security if security can no longer be assumed? Instead, contractors, hired temporarily for specific knowledge and skills, market their expertise as they move from project to project. Even though their employment is precarious, a great many consider freelancing preferable to holding a "regular" job: the control they feel over their time and careers is well worth the risks that come with relatively uncertain cash flow.

    Freelancing Expertise is a qualitative study of decision making, work practices, and occupational processes among writers and editors who work in print and Web communications and programmers and engineers who work in software and systems development. Debra Osnowitz conducted sixty-eight extended interviews with representatives of both groups and twelve interviews with managers and recruiters, observed four different work settings in which contractors work alongside employees, and monitored blogs and online discussions among contractors. As a result, she provides a unique and sensitive assessment of a cultural shift in occupations and organizations.

    Osnowitz calls for a reconfiguration of the employer/employee relationship that accepts more variation and flexibility: just as "freelancing" has, over time, taken on many traits considered characteristic of traditional career paths, so might regular jobs make themselves more appealing to today's workforce by mimicking some of the positive aspects of transactions between clients and contract workers.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6038-8
    Subjects: Business

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-23)

    The afternoon I spent with Ben discussing his work, career, and family life, was, in his words, “a chance to think about the big picture. With so much to manage and never enough time,” he explained, “that little screen gets all my attention.” Gesturing to several computer terminals crowded on to a corner table, Ben compared his work as a contract software engineer to “the people who made the Industrial Revolution. They changed they way people lived, where they lived, where they worked. A lot of it was for the good. But if you read history, you find out there...

  5. 1 Two Occupations with Divided: Labor Markets
    (pp. 24-46)

    Why do firms hire contractors? Short-term need and flexibility are the key reasons. Because employers no longer retain enough staff for periods of peak demand, contractors can temporarily augment the workforce of a firm. Contractors also enhance managerial options. Hired for a defined period or the duration of a project, they can be chosen for expertise that employers need only occasionally. Rather than employers, however, contractors speak of clients, usually firms that engage their services for short-term work. For their clients, contractors collectively constitute an external labor market that facilities flexibility in two ways: numerical flexibility allows an organization to...

  6. 2 Assessing Options, Making Choices
    (pp. 47-71)

    Contracting requires experience. Most of the contract professionals I met had invested years learning occupational skills and practices while formally employed in organizational positions. Some had risen through their employers’ ranks, achieving notable organizational status as team leaders, project directors, or department managers. Leaving these jobs, when the departure was optional, had been far from a precipitous decision for the contractors I encountered. Many, however, had confronted a stark choice: find a new job elsewhere or try your hand at contracting. Indeed, my informants’ accounts were morality tales of organizational change in which downsizing, restructuring, and corporate caprice figured prominently....

  7. 3 Performing Expertise
    (pp. 72-94)

    Despite their disillusion with standard employment, the contract professionals I met had remained engaged in their respective occupations. External labor markets were well institutionalized, they explained, and contractors moved within a system of employment. Establishing a relationship with each new client, however, required an ongoing process of managing impressions and controlling a presentation of self. Lacking formal titles and job descriptions, contractors must negotiate working relationships with both managers and employees at client firms. Common occupational practices contribute to their understanding of the work to be done, but unlike employees, they cannot depend on organizational status to establish their authority...

  8. 4 Managing Marginality
    (pp. 95-119)

    Contracting circumscribes contractors’ involvement in employing organizations. Hired for specific expertise, contractors are often valued contributors to the goals of their clients, and they can and do influence work-related decisions. Rarely, however, do they assume a significant role in long-term decision making. Rather, they remain marginal actors, occupying a social location that allows little latitude for engaging in conflict or voicing dissent. Despite expert performance and productive client relations, they participate in a work arrangement that limits their involvement and enforces status distinctions.

    In relations with clients, contractors navigate a set of contradictions that they can never fully resolve. They...

  9. 5 Collegial Networking, Occupational Control
    (pp. 120-144)

    For a contractor, formal feedback—an assessment of individual performance—is unusual. Most clients expect contractors to be low maintenance, to begin work with the necessary expertise and to move on quietly when their work is finished. My informants could cite few managers who had invested time or trouble in formally evaluating their performance, and as contractors, they had rarely requested evaluations. To ask a client for feedback might undermine a contractor’s display of confidence. Yet without organizational mechanisms to gauge their success, contractors must depend on informal indicators and interactional cues.

    In chapter 4, I identified the dynamics through...

  10. 6 Extra-Organizational Careers
    (pp. 145-167)

    Can contracting constitute a career? Career connotes direction, but contracting demands flexibility. A career demands investment, but contractors can depend little on their clients to invest in their professional progress. Contractors may use their employment status as leverage to control daily schedules, but what of the longer-term demands of their careers? Contracting lacks the institutional benchmarks that chart progress within employing organizations; formal promotions, with increasing authority, for example, are always reserved for employees. Nor can contractors expect their clients to provide them with opportunities to learn on the job or develop new skills. Rather than expectations for advancement, they...

  11. 7 Work Relations Reconsidered
    (pp. 168-190)

    Contract employment is far from problem free, and its practitioners do voice complaints. Some of their difficulties, however, affect contractors and employees alike. A standard job is hardly a buffer against volatility and change, and employees as well as contractors face uncertain labor markets. But employees, unlike contractors, have access to systems of legal rights and benefits. For them, a job more often comes with formal procedures in case of unresolved disputes. In contrast, problems specific to contracting stem largely from a lack of applicable social policy or institutional support. What, then, do contract professionals forgo in an external labor...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 191-210)

    What, then, can the accounts of these contract professionals reveal about the new economy? How might their experiences explain new patterns of autonomy and constraint? What might they portend for employment relations in a global age? The expansion of contracting represents one dimension of the new economy, a structural shift in paid employment in which flexibility has become the byword, signifying the malleability of work relations and the ever-present possibility of change. All workers, even those who remain firmly lodged in standard jobs, now confront, in some form, the unpredictability of a volatile economy. The security once implied by a...

  13. Appendix: Contractors Interviewed
    (pp. 211-216)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 217-234)
  15. References
    (pp. 235-252)
  16. Index
    (pp. 253-260)