In the 2011 inaugural MBO Partners Independent Workforce Index, a study of independent professionals in America, it is clear that the cataclysmic workforce shifts of the past decades have fueled a new kind of productivity, wealth and personal growth opportunity for American workers and companies. A new breed of entrepreneurial experts is a shining, silver lining in an otherwise gloomy workforce picture. And it’s time to unleash the potential of this innovative, entrepreneurial, and fast-growing group. The future of independent work in America is both promising and here to stay, but there are real obstacles we must keep in mind if we are to realize the potential.
This bold new untethered, independent workforce spans gender and generations and is currently 16 million strong in the U.S. today. Both at MBO Partners (which helps bring independent consultants and companies together) and in other roles, I’ve been watching and serving the independent workforce for more than 25 years, and I believe that by 2020 more than half of U.S. workers will be independent, leading to a new independent majority.
What the future workforce looks like
What does this future workforce look like today? According to the MBO study this take-charge group possesses not only a high level of self-reliance and control but is setting the bar for a higher standard in the very nature of work. Nearly 79 percent of the independent workers we surveyed stated they are highly satisfied or satisfied with their work situation versus half of non-independent employees who are unhappy and 70 percent who are not engaged or are disengaged. For the independent worker, the litmus test for career success is not position, title or income but a rich life where work fulfills a deeper passion. In the MBO study, 75 percent of independents overall stated that doing something they love was more important than making money while 74 percent stated that they wanted a job where they know they were making a difference.
The MBO study also reveals that of the 16 million, more than 10 million are independent experts — that’s seven in 10 of today’s independent workforce. These experts offer specialized knowledge and skills to the open market. These motivated “solopreneurs” are becoming the talent-of-choice for some of the world’s most successful enterprises, as a recent Aberdeen study of organizations hiring contract talent reveals. This study found that the top reason that companies chose independent talent wasn’t cost — as is often assumed — but rather access to specialists with unique skills and talents who are more highly engaged producing breakthrough results. In this new economy, MBO Partners sees a future of work largely comprised of independent experts, enabling organizations to assemble powerful, hand-picked arsenals of specialized talent.
My vision: A pioneering, independent workforce
If America was built on a pioneering spirit, so too, is its latest work star. Independent workers crave control, flexibility, and enjoyment in work. The needs and motivations of the independent worker ripple through the entire workforce. As workers function as an independent brand, old hierarchies crumble and workers deliver better results. With an entrepreneurial mindset, the American worker can deploy their talents in a global market, in their way and on their own terms.
This is the vision I hope for, but I am also a realist, and I believe there are obstacles today standing in the way. As the rise of independent workers has increased over the past five years, so, too, have the barriers. The surge in government regulations and class action lawsuits have made it nearly impossible for any law-abiding employer to engage an independent worker without the risk of being accused of worker misclassification and paying heavy fines.
On an individual level, another set of very real burdens can hold back the solopreneur, including the desire for a safety net and the need for a proper launchpad into independence. Add to that the growing government regulations, coupled with corporate complexity in engaging independent talent, and what appears is a dangerous path of least resistance — the offshoring of talent. If we do not address the obstacles and complexity around the free and productive use of independent talent, companies — as well as these talented experts — may choose the troubling path of leaving this great country and going elsewhere.
For those that watch the new world of work, I urge you to consider the solopreneur’s needs, goals and burdens as we design new products and services and solutions. It is this individual — expert, experienced, committed and determined, and with rapidly growing ranks — who will help us figure out how to create the future.
The pathway to independence
To support the free and the brave independents — and a future in which half of American workers may be solo businesses — we need a “take-us-to-the-moon” mindset.
To realize this future, I believe we need a passport for independence. Individuals must be able to move from project to project and company to company with better, more robust systems, safety nets and the tools to support them as compliant, independent businesses. This is not the staffing company model that turns independents into employees, but rather an approach that empowers independent professionals to operate as businesses of one with easy and safe mechanisms that pay into and couple with financial and taxation systems that are already in place. These mechanisms would enable independent workers to fund government revenue and build the protection necessary to insulate their clients from misclassification risks associated with issues like workers compensation, general liability and other business insurances.
We would be smart to consider how current work programs, regulations and responsibilities should fit into the new model of work. I believe the private sector must take the lead on this, since government cannot move fast enough, even if they can agree on what to change. If we do not, the tensions, obstacles and overall change management may become overwhelming and stifle a very important, and in my view a very positive, trend to independence.
Let’s take a holistic approach recognizing that it is multi-dimensional. The new work solution set should add to, not dilute, what is already in place and include financial transaction systems combined with an infrastructure platform that addresses the full spectrum of considerations from legal to tax to benefits.
If we can quickly and efficiently support the needs of our solopreneurs, accelerate their growth, and do so without disrupting the regulatory and structural system in which we all work and live, we will create the next generation of growth, prosperity and greatness.
Gene Zaino is the CEO and President of MBO Partners, a leader in the $250-billion-and-growing independent consulting sector. He will be a speaker at the GigaOM Network conference on Dec 8, 2011 and will also moderate a panel diving into the data and real-life perspectives of clients and independent workers today.