1 of 3
BartekSzewczyk, Getty Images/iStockphoto
Freelancers are growing in numbers. Here's why, as well as some things to think about if you're considering becoming one of them.

At just 26 years old, Naresh Vissa has already worked for a number of companies since graduating from business school.

And that suits him just fine.

Rather than being a victim of employment instability, Vissa represents a growing wave of freelance workers — professionals from all sorts of fields who pursue short-term work commitments in lieu of full-time employment.

Some, like Vissa, who works as an independent marketing and publishing consultant, have chosen freelancing of their own accord, while others are more or less compelled to give freelancing a try. But regardless of how they got there, many so-called "solopreneurs" embrace the variety and the uncertainty that come with rarely seeing a continuous paycheck from the same employer.

And, for their part, businesses that use freelancers seem just as content.

“Lots of places hire me for a three-month tryout,” Vissa says. “If they like my work, we can continue the relationship. If not, we part ways.”

Full time? No thanks

Freelancers make up roughly 34 percent of the domestic workforce, according to a 2014 study by the Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk, an online resource for freelancers. That translates to 53 million workers, including more than 14 million people who “moonlight” (freelancing in addition to being employed elsewhere) and more than 5 million temp workers. The number of people paid by temp agencies such as Manpower has grown 46 percent since 2009, according to Labor Bureau data.

Those numbers suggest a growing trend to opt out of the conventional full-time employment aggressively pursued by earlier generations.

But forgoing full-time employment was not a matter of choice for many workers. Beginning with a recession in 2008, companies slashed full-time employee rolls to cope with a struggling economy. Many employers lowered employment expenses by turning to freelance workers who didn’t mandate the financial burden of 401(k)s, insurance and other full-time benefits.

“The growth in temp work isn't a random occurrence; it's a product of very intentional business policy to keep costs and commitments down at the expense of workers,” says economist Andrew Terrell. “At the same time, this state of affairs is teaching workers to not commit to companies.”

“It’s forced people to find new ways to make money,” adds Vissa, “but it’s also forced companies to find new ways to deliver results.”

Economics isn't the only driving force behind a growing freelance population.

According to the “2014 State of Independence in America Report” by MBO Partners — a Herndon, Virginia, company supporting independent employment — some 54 percent of “solopreneurs” said their decision to go out on their own was theirs alone. Positives cited in the report include greater control over work and personal schedules, more flexibility and the advantages of being their own boss.

In some cases, personal choice and the particular workings of an industry coincide.

“The television industry is really built around freelance work,” says Jonathan Craig, 26, an associate television producer. “I started freelancing right after high school and learned a bunch of different skills. And I never had the full-time employee lifestyle.”

Laid off, few options

Scott Rupp’s freelancing experience is almost stereotypic, with a positive outcome. Formerly employed by a software company sold to a venture capitalist, Rupp watched as some 500 fellow employees were let go.

“I was one of the last,” says the 37-year-old Bradenton, Florida, resident. “I thought I was safe because I was the only one in the company who was doing my particular job.”

After months of fruitless job hunting, Rupp decided to freelance to build some sort of income flow. Even though his former company had given him a modest severance that kept him and his family financially afloat, Rupp says, “It was the most stressful time in my life. I had car payments and debt payments, and I kept wondering how I was going to manage all of this.”

Fortunately, Rupp has managed to build up a steady and lucrative clientele. He credits his willingness to learn new skills as a way to offer clients a variety of services from public relations to website content creation, blogging and other work.

“It worked out because even when I was working my 8-to-5 job, I always tried to diversify to learn new things,” he says.

Other freelancers speak to the value of skill diversity. Julie Austin, author of "The Money Garden: How to Plant the Seeds for a Lifetime of Income," who has freelanced in a variety of capacities, suggests workers who focus their freelancing skills only limit their income potential.

“After 2008, many people had to reinvest themselves and really evaluate the job market,” she says. “In my case, I decided to never put all my eggs in one basket.”

The same holds true for many businesses in need of skilled workers. FitSmallBusiness.com, an online entrepreneur support website in New York City, finds freelancers to fill a variety of goals and requirements.

"You can pay by the project," says editor David Waring. "Oftentimes, smaller companies do not have enough work for a full-time person to do specialist jobs like bookkeeping or maintaining a website. And if you don't like working with a freelancer, you just stop giving them projects, which is much easier than firing someone."

Know yourself, your skills

As with any long-term professional decision, carefully evaluate whether freelancing is a viable option. Rather than compulsively ditching full-time work and benefits for freelancing, Austin recommends freelancing on the side to gauge its financial potential and to see how well suited you might be to its varied challenges.

Additionally, gird yourself for a fair amount of frustration and rejection. No matter how skilled or well connected you might be, don't expect to sit back and have unsolicited work roll in.

“It does take a certain kind of personality,” Austin says. “You have to be a hustler.”

Working for several clients at the same time, Vissa notes, is a valuable financial hedge if and when any one relationship comes to an end.

And, Rupp says, be prepared to deal with different forms of working relationships and feedback.

“It’s a different type of criticism — you’re constantly asking yourself, ‘Why didn’t they want to work with me?’ ” Rupp says. “You have to know that you’re going to make mistakes — but as long as you’re learning something from the experience, you’ll move forward.”

There are disadvantages for employers to consider as well. One, says Waring, is a certain sense of disconnect between a company and short-time workers.

"The main downside is that you are not building your own in-house team who feels loyal to your company," he said.

Despite the hurdles and setbacks, many solopreneurs have found the constant change and variety of clients refreshing and stimulating.

“I’d really have to think about it,” Craig says about the possibility of accepting full-time employment were it ever offered. “I know it would relieve a lot of anxiety. But it would also have a cost in the risk of becoming stagnant. I know I’m developing faster as a person and as a professional as I move from one project to another.”

Jeff Wuorio lives in southern Maine where he covers personal finance and entrepreneurship. He may be reached at [email protected]. His website is www.jeffwuorio.com.