Shawn Camp will never be confused for a millenial, except for maybe how he works.
Camp, who recently turned 40, is a happy participant in the gig economy, so named for the members of the workforce who take contract jobs — gigs — rather than long-term permanent employment with a single employer. Camp, a software developer, hires himself out to interested companies in northwest Arkansas and completes assigned projects at his own pace.
“I like to do things on my own terms,” Camp said. “I have never really been excited about a salary as far as a motivator. As opportunities and projects I’m interested in come along, I like to be able to jump on those and always be working on the latest and greatest. I work at a lot of different times of the day; that’s when my brain is going and that’s not always 8 to 5.”
Camp said he started his work career as a freelancer when he was in college at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. After graduating with a degree in computer information systems, Camp did the traditional work thing by getting a job at a textbook company in Siloam Springs.
Camp held permanent positions for the first seven years of his career before he and a group of colleagues formed a development company called Solve. After Solve, Camp returned to conventional work at Rockfish before deciding to go back to freelancing seven years ago.
“I started thinking I could be making more [money] or working on the projects I wanted to do,” Camp said of his decision to return to freelancing. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be busy for the last seven years and hardly any downturn whatsoever. Business comes in cycles, but it’s all about knowing the right people. I worked at several companies, and that’s where I made all the connections to be able to do what I’m doing today.”
The gig economy has become a strong facet of America’s working world, and a 2017 study by MBO Partners, an organization for independent workers, showed that 41 million people, representing 31 percent of the private U.S. workforce, were working independently.
Of those independent workers, 24 percent were considered “reluctant,” meaning that they would prefer a long-term, traditional job but couldn’t find one. That percentage was the lowest MBO Partners has found in the past seven years.
“Occasional” independent workers — those who take temporary jobs at least once a month to supplement their regular income — represented 23 percent of the 41 million workers. The report found that 3.2 million independent workers earned more than $100,000 annually in 2017.
“The State of Independence report, the only of its kind with seven years of trending data, shows definitively that independent work is the way of the future,” said MBO Partners CEO Gene Zaino. “Even against a strong economy, independents, particularly in skilled labor markets, choose this path over traditional employment. Sixty-five percent of all Independents say that independent work was their choice entirely, and this number will continue to rise as organizations compete in a war for top talent in highly competitive fields such as engineering and computer science.”
Gig workers are an important part of the northwest Arkansas landscape, said Rick Webb, co-founder of Grit Studios in Bentonville. Webb is the president of the Northwest Arkansas Tech Council and a former senior vice president at Walmart Inc. of Bentonville.
“The workforce is in two big groups; it is bifurcating at this point,” Webb said. “There are people who are choosing to do freelance work because it is flexible and they like controlling their time and they like working wherever they want to work. They are driven more by the interest in the work than by having a career with one of the big corporations. It is a different mindset.
“Then, in northwest Arkansas and all over the country, you have people who used to be with one of the big corporations who are kind of idling at this point. They’re looking for that next opportunity. A lot of those will end up back in the corporate environment and not really freelance.”
Grit Studios, which Webb founded with Jeannette Balleza Collins, is a co-working space for entrepreneurs and independent workers to have a place to work. Webb said it is one of at least three co-working venues in Bentonville alone.
“That’s an indication that there are people out there looking for a place to work that is not home,” Webb said. “That’s definitely happening.”
Webb said the business leaders he speaks with regularly on the West Coast indicate that big corporations there are beginning to scale back on independent workers because companies want to be able to monitor productivity better. Also, Webb said, companies want to have the best people in the same room because they believe that would help collaborative creativity and innovation.
Northwest Arkansas hasn’t yet seen a scaling back, Webb said.
T.J. Waggoner, owner of Waggoner Diagnostics, a manufacturer and seller of medical equipment, uses only freelance workers at his business.
Waggoner said he may one day consider hiring a full-time in-house salesperson but, for now, he’s content with using graphic designers or software developers as needed.
Waggoner uses the website Upwork.com to advertise jobs and find suitable candidates, he said.
“That’s why I use freelancers: because I don’t have work for a graphic designer full time,” Waggoner said. “It absolutely is helpful because I don’t have to worry about all the payroll things. I use an online thing and find my freelancers there. It’s much more affordable than going to an organization that has a bunch of overhead. It’s very simplified by being able to work with freelancers. I don’t need a graphic designer 365 days a year.”
Camp has had no problems finding work as a freelancer and has considered building his own website to advertise his skills and availability. He hasn’t done it because he said he can really only concentrate on two projects at once and, if he were more visible and received more job opportunities, he might have to turn too many down.
“At the end of the day, most of the time I’m coding and not out there selling,” Camp said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to stay busy. Things are pretty good the way they are.”
Webb said the drawback to the gig model is connecting the job with the job seekers. With known freelancers such as Camp that isn’t a problem, but for many new to freelancing, getting in front of the right opportunity is key.
“The detriment is there is no really good system available to give employers or freelancers visibility of the opportunities,” Webb said.
“You’re kind of poking around; it’s a relationship game: Who do you know? Walmart could probably use more of the gig economy if there was a way to show who it is, what your skill, what’s your availability, what do you charge? Almost a like matchmaking platform.”