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Freelance Gigs: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century Workforce

One in five American jobs is now held by a worker under contract. Within a decade, contractors and freelancers could make up half of the American workforce. Workers across all industries and at all professional levels will be affected by the movement toward independent work — one without the constraints, or benefits, of full-time employment. Policymakers are just starting to talk about the implications.

In an old metal factory in Wheeling that was once part of West Virginia’s industrial era, a law firm has created a futuristic model for how to legal work. In contrast to the old factory, this one relies heavily on emerging work arrangements.

“Contractors are hired by the hour,” says Daryl Shetterly, director of the Orrick firm’s analytics division. “So we might have 30 people working today, and tomorrow we might have 80.”

The career of a worker in this building used to be measured in decades. Today, it may last only a few days. The building itself has undergone a facelift, Shetterly says, but it remains a factory in the truest spirit “in that we work to drive efficiency and discipline into every mouse click.”

The division is essentially a processing center that uses artificial intelligence and lower-paid lawyers to accelerate the management of routine tasks like sorting and tagging documents. That frees other (higher-paid) lawyers to focus on more sophisticated forms of work.

It’s representative of the kind of contract work filtering into every corner of the economy. Machines are increasingly taking over basic tasks, and temporary workers give companies flexibility to size up or scale down. In the legal field, there are online platforms that match freelance lawyers with clients. It’s quite a bit like dating profiles — but it comes with customer reviews and billing assistance.

The legal job market, in short, is fragmenting, and workers are fragmenting with it.

“Lots of people go into law expecting that they’re headed to a secure, well-paying, intellectually satisfying, high-prestige job, and lots of those people find out that’s not what they’re headed to,” says Gillian Hadfield, who studies legal markets at the University of Southern California.

She notes that the speed with which business evolves these days forces everyone — from primary businesses to suppliers to the competition —to respond quickly. Employers need specialized expertise on demand, just not for the long term.

But it isn’t only those businesses driving that change. Surveys show a significant number of freelancers themselves work in these capacities by choice.

John Vensel is a contract attorney at Orrick and grew up just down the road from Wheeling, on the other side of the Pennsylvania state line. During his 20s, he worked as a freelance paralegal by day and a gig musician by night.

In the two decades in between, Vensel worked full-time corporate jobs. Then he found himself laid off in 2010, right on the eve of his graduation from his a law program he was completing in night school. He had amassed a huge pile of debt, and graduated into one of the worst job markets in recent times.

“It was terrible; it was like a nuclear bomb went off,” he says. “My son had just been born. … We’ve been kind of recovering ever since.”

For a while Vensel commuted three hours round-trip to a full-time job in Pittsburgh. But with improving economic conditions in recent years, he quit and started contracting to stay near home in Wheeling.

He explained that his own father was in the hospital at the moment, “which is like five minutes away, and I’m getting updates on my phone,” he explains, glancing at the device. “And if I need to be there, I can be there in five minutes.”

He says contract work is today’s economic reality. Contracting allows employers to test workers out, he says, but he ultimately is hoping to land a full-time position, with benefits. A new NPR/Marist poll shows that 34 percent of part-time workers are looking for full-time work.

That may be a harder goal to achievet. Currently, 1 in 5 workers is a contract worker, the poll shows. According to economists Alan Krueger and Lawrence Katz, the percentage of people engaged in “alternative work arrangements” (freelancers, contractors, on-call workers and temp agency workers) grew from 10.1 percent in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015. Their report found that almost all — or 94 percent — of net jobs created from 2005 to 2015 were these sorts of impermanent jobs

Within a decade, many labor economists believe freelancers will outnumber full timers.

Vensel draws a contrast with his father, who retired after working 35 years at the Postal Service.

“He has a pension; we don’t have pensions anymore,” Vensel says. “It’s a totally different world.”

Sixty-five percent of part-time workers and a little more than half of contract workers receive no benefits, according to the NPR/Marist poll.

Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University and author of The Sharing Economy, confirms that “this is the work arrangement for the future.” The new normal will be freelance work. “Twenty years from now, I don’t think a typical college graduate is going to expect that full-time employment is their path to building a career,” Sundararajan says.

He says that will ultimately lead to many other changes, from education to social structures and public services.

And despite the “flexibility” these arrangements can offer workers, they ultimately shift more responsibility to workers themselves, who are left to handle retirement saving and health insurance on their own. And for many … forget about workers compensation benefits.

Wheeling’s mayor, Glenn Elliott, has voiced concerns about organizations like Orrick coming to his town, and about the wider implications of the shift to a contract-worker economy. “Some people, despite their best efforts, just aren’t going to be successful in doing that,” Elliott says. “What’s going to happen to those who fall through the cracks? Because the 1950s model of retirement and getting your pension check every year from your company is not a realistic model for a lot of people, increasingly.”

The public safety net — schools and the fire department and other social services — is already under tremendous pressure, he says, because of the area’s opioid problems (among other issues). A future where fewer workers have benefits will only make this worse.

Elliott expresses frustration with partisan battles at the state and federal level, while cities like his struggle to figure out how to plan for the future.

“It’s a much broader problem than Wheeling,” he says. But “as a country we need to be having a conversation, which we’re not really having right now.”

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