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Providence Business News 

Posted April 27, 2009


Workers increasingly go it alone

By William Hamilton, PBN Staff Writer

After Scott Fraser lost his job as a senior-level executive at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island in late 2007, he followed the typical steps in his search for a new employer.

Fraser, 53, a former vice president of government relations with 23 years of experience at the health insurer, filled out applications, mailed resumes and made the rounds at events for networking.
In a tough job market that seemed only to be getting more difficult, Fraser didn’t get any job offers.
“It was not working,” he says.
Now more than a year since he has received a steady paycheck, Fraser is taking a different tack: He’s formed a company called the Fraser Communications Group, complete with business cards and stationery.
Phone lines have been set up in his home office, and soon he will have a Web site. He is close to launching his one-man venture, tapping into his lengthy lobbying and media-relations experience.
“This is something I feel I have more control over,” says Fraser. “It’s totally up to you whether you make it or not.”
Fraser is joining the growing ranks of people deciding to strike out on their own in consulting, freelancing and contract work – particularly older, more seasoned workers who have found it difficult to land jobs in related fields with pay similar to the positions they were forced to leave.
To be sure, the use of freelancers, independent contractors, consultants and temporary workers is on the rise across the board as companies are more hesitant to hire permanent employees in a time of economic uncertainty or are looking to cut the costs of benefits attached to long-term workers.
The New York City-based Freelancers Union says its national membership ballooned from about 65,000 to 100,000 in 2008, and has swelled by another 10,000 since January.
Although the union represents freelancers from a broad range of fields, Sara Horowitz, the group’s executive director, told Providence Business News that she has seen particularly high growth in the finance, technology and health sectors.
The recession, Horowitz says, has brought a “new era” in employment in which short-term work will be the norm. She sees a time in the near future when most people will move between traditional, full-time employment and temporary jobs many times over the course of a career.

“Most everybody can now be expected to be freelancing at some point in their life,” she says. “People are following the work, and this is where a lot of the work is.”
Freelancing and contract work have traditionally been the realm of a younger set, but with job cuts, even the more experienced employees who find themselves suddenly without a job are following the work, too.
The Freelancers Union says 19,450 of its members are older than 50, a membership number that’s grown 23 percent in the last six months alone. “This is the new economy,” Horowitz says.
Thomas Wharton, managing partner of OI Partners-Lifocus Inc., a Warwick-based career transition and coaching firm that provides job-placement services to recently laid-off executives, said a few years ago only about 5 percent of his clients decided to turn to contract work, freelancing and consulting.
Now Wharton estimates that it’s about 15 percent – and still growing – in part because the sagging economy has made traditional employment more difficult to obtain.
“This is by far the worst we’ve seen as far as [traditional full-time] job opportunities out there,” said Wharton.
Some additional bad news: Launching a freelancing or consulting career isn’t a guarantee to success, either.
Wharton says about one-third of the out-of-work executives his firm coaches take that path only after they have been out of work for months, frustrated at being unable to find even a lesser job.
By that time, severance money is running dangerously low – if it was available at all – and often disappears totally before a last-minute, go-it-alone strategy can gain traction. Plus, there’s the toll that an unsuccessful job search can take on a person’s confidence.
“The failure rate is very high,” said Wharton.
Other executives look at the job loss – particularly if it comes with a sizable severance package – as a chance to pursue their dreams of being their own boss.

More recently, Wharton says one unemployed project manager coached by OI Partners-Lifocus launched a business-management consulting firm soon after his job loss. He had enough money socked away to support his family until the business took flight.
“Now he’s doing very well,” Wharton said.
That’s not to say a willing leap into working for yourself will be the answer to overcoming the recession.
Take Susan Ring. The 53-year-old had been the manager of interpretation at Roger Williams Park Zoo, where she researched and designed graphics and developed the on-grounds entertainment and other programs.
Then she quit last year before the economy took a real nosedive, seeking to offer her skills on a contract basis to other zoos, museums and schools. She started a one-person creative services firm called Monkey-Says LLC, and assembled a Web site,
“I wanted to do it on my own,” said Ring, who also has been a freelance children’s writer on and off for 20 years. “I wanted to expand, not just do it at one zoo.”
But then the recession took hold, and grant money at nonprofits and schools dried up and a writing project she was counting on to give her venture a boost was canceled. It took longer than expected for the business to bring in money.
In the meantime, she has taken a six-month position as a copywriter at Pawtucket-based toy maker Hasbro Inc. until things turn around. But that’s created another problem: “I haven’t kept up with the marketing or looking for freelance work because I’ve been too busy.”
For his part, Fraser says he knows venturing out on his own won’t be easy and the profits won’t be immediate.
But colleagues have been encouraging, saying there’s enough communications work out there to support his firm. His wife and three adult children have been supportive, too. “What else are you doing?” his 24-year-old son told him. “Why not give it a shot?”
So now he’s planning a launch party in the coming weeks.
“I don’t have any illusions that this will be successful after three months or six months or a year,” Fraser said. “But I can definitely see a pathway to success.” •