Growth in Temps: Bad Sign for Employees, Good Sign for Freelancers

Saw an interesting bit in the Associated Press this morning entitled: “Use of temps may no longer signal permanent hiring” (link).

Here’s an excerpt:

When employers hire temporary staff after a recession, it’s long been seen as a sign they’ll soon hire permanent workers. Not these days. Companies have hired more temps for four straight months. Yet they remain reluctant to make permanent hires because of doubts about the recovery’s durability.

Even companies that are boosting production seem inclined to get by with their existing workers, plus temporary staff if necessary.

“I think temporary hiring is less useful a signal than it used to be,” says John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo. “Companies aren’t testing the waters by turning to temporary firms. They just want part-time workers.”

All of which bodes well for commercial freelancers like us. Now, don’t get me wrong. Certainly don’t want to get gleeful about an ominous economic sign – one that appears to argue against a speedier bounce-back to the economy than perhaps originally anticipated.

That said, I have little control over the speed of the economic recovery, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned through the business ups and down over the past few decades, it’s this: what’s a bad sign for those seeking full-time employment is often a good sign for temporary/contract workers like us.

Fact is, the economy taketh away and the economy giveth. As the above article highlights, if you’re a temporary worker these days, opportunities are rich. And bottom line, that’s exactly what we freelance copywriters are: temporary workers.

And temporary workers like us offer some sound bottom-line pluses to those who hire us:

1) Buy only what they need and only when they need it
2) No salaries, benefits and vacations to provide
3) Fresh “outsider” perspectives
4) Access to a wide range of talent

The rise in temporary worker hiring underscores the growing workload these companies have, but as the article points out, in an uncertain economy, workers like us represent a darn good solution. And companies know it. The clincher: this is nothing new.

Over the past few decades, when the economy hit rough patches, and downsizing was the order of the day, I and others noticed the increased use of copywriting folks like us by companies who’d shed full-time staff (or pricey creative agencies), but still needed to get work out the door. And sure, once things turned around, as the above article points out, many companies added back full-time staff where it just made sense to do so.

However, many small-to-medium-sized companies (say, 50-200 employees and $5-$50 million in revenue; i.e., the business “sweet spot” for commercial writers), having seen, firsthand, the real bottom line advantages of the freelancer model over the full-time employee model – never went back. And it’s happening again as companies realize a lot of the services they need can be delivered by contract workers. And simply put, it’s changing the face of the workplace forever. Note the line in the excerpt above:

Even companies that are boosting production seem inclined to get by with their existing workers, plus temporary staff if necessary.

And heck, companies aren’t the only ones falling in love the idea of independent workers. Freelancers themselves have been discovering the joys of working for themselves for years now. And these days, you can’t spit without hitting yet another article about the rising trend in self-employment.

Sure, for many, it wasn’t their first choice, and in many cases, they had no choice. But, I know plenty of folks who started out as reluctant freelancers out of necessity some years back, got bitten hard by the bug, and like the companies that hire them, they too will never go back. Not just because of the dramatically enhanced quality of life, but because they finally “get” what us long-termers realized a log time ago: there’s far more job security in self-employment than there’ll ever be in a J-O-B.

Have you seen this scenario play out in your business experiences?

Have you had clients contact you to fill the work gap left by departing full-timers (or the dropping of an expensive agency)?

Did you start out as a reluctant freelancer only to be converted forever?

34 replies
  1. Roxane B. Salonen
    Roxane B. Salonen says:

    I’m not reluctant. It just seemed to be the right move based on my years of experience and where I’m at in my life with my family. But I do think it’s interesting that just as I’m about to dip into this pool, the climate is turning particularly ripe. How heartening that is! And certainly, the whole thing appeals more even more as I read your blog. I love the supportive community here. Thanks Peter.

  2. Star
    Star says:

    This is indeed the conventional wisdom…and we freelancers supposedly know how to drag the crumbs out of the cake. But even at that, it seems to be getting harder. Whether it’s the changing paradigm (la-de-dah) or just the glut of journalists and writers hitting the market daily, I am not sure. Still, I do sit here and think, “I know how to do this.”

  3. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Yes, we DO know how to do this, and that’s going to hold us in good stead. And in a tough market, I think the next frontier is going to be those companies who don’t even know that people like us exist, and once they discover us, they’ll suddenly find plenty of ways to put us to work. I’ve discovered this very thing with several recent clients.


    P.S. STAY TUNED for a brand-new look for the blog, coming very soon. You guys are going to love this. We’re taking this thing to a whole new aesthetic level… 😉

  4. Elaine Regus
    Elaine Regus says:

    Right after I accepted a buyout from the newpsaper where I had worked for many years, I called one of my sources to see if she was hiring any freelancers. As it turned out, her staff writer was on leave so I wound up getting a six-month contract. When the staff writer came back, I continued to do some work for this client. Then, when the staff writer was let go for budgetary reasons, my contract was renewed. That client is now one of my largest accounts.

  5. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Several years ago I was downsized from an IT giant. It was the CEO who gave me the dreaded news. Fortunately … I inherited some of my father’s sales chops and went into ‘FLCW’ mode within the same meeting. After a brief discussion, I was asked to report to work the very next day for a lengthy project. A new career was born! Haven’t looked back since. Of course Peter’s books have made it so much easier! Follow his plan and the work will come. On a related note … I’ve been experimenting with attending chamber of commerce meetings lately. I make a game out of how many connections I can make. After just two meetings I’ve had six project interviews and have landed three new clients. The trick is to be proactive. Introduce yourself & share your elevator pitch. Best to all.

  6. Dan McCarthy
    Dan McCarthy says:

    Actually the news is better (or worse) than you think if a recent Yahoo Finance article is any indicator. I won’t paste the link; instead Google “Use of temps may no longer signal permanent hiring” to read the whole thing.

    In essence, the says the hiring of temps (subtext: freelance contractors) may not signal a recovery at all. If the economy remains stuck in neutral, as many believe it will, businesses may be relying on our services for a long time to come.

  7. Robert M. Jorgensen
    Robert M. Jorgensen says:

    Certainly not reluctant, but working around my full-time job is certainly hampering my progress. The biggest hurdle I have is that my wife doesn’t understand why I would rather freelance as opposed to working at a job with benefits.

    Any suggestions?

  8. Michael D. Scully
    Michael D. Scully says:

    Whoa! You weren’t kidding about the re-design. I like the tie-in with the books’ color scheme.

    I also like the “Notify me of followup comments via e-mail” option.

    Where is the “attach my photo” option?

  9. Roxane B. Salonen
    Roxane B. Salonen says:

    Peter, very nice re-design, indeed! Love the bold colors!

    Stephen, I’m glad you mentioned the Chamber. I’ve been thinking about joining ours, wondering if it would be worth it. Sounds like it is for you. Today I met with my local communicators’ group. I talked about what I’m gearing up to do in the next months, and those present thought the title “freelance writer” or “freelance copywriter” would fall short. They advised “independent communications consultant” or something of that nature. I’m curious if anyone here has any thoughts on that. Not to get off subject…but if you do have ideas or thoughts, I’d be happy to hear them.

  10. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    I find myself increasingly in demand as the “go-to guy” for new or growing marketing firms that now rely on subcontracting as the affordable and sensible way to expand. There’s just not enough fat in most companies’ current budgets to pay a full-time copywriter to spend most of his 40-hour workweek throwing pencils into the ceiling.

  11. Steve Rainwater
    Steve Rainwater says:

    Peter – the new look is outstanding!

    I came into freelancing when necessity was the mother of invention, but it found me, I didn’t find it. When the consulting firm I had worked for only six months as director of BD let me know that I would be terminated in two more months as they would be filing for bankruptcy and closing up shop, I began to network for a new position by contacting companies that interested me. One company I visited sent me home shortly after our meeting saying they weren’t looking to bring on new reps in the position I proposed. The following week they phoned me and asked me back to their office. After reviewing my resume they had figured out some ways that my “background” could be useful to them on a “temporary” basis. By the end of our meeting I was leaving their office for my three hour drive home, 5K retainer check in hand – new official title – “Special Projects,” tasked to only return to the office every month or so for a status meeting.

    About a month later and a few “special projects” under our belt, a friend contacted me and said I should meet with two of his friends, owners of a small IT services firm. They needed some direction in their sales and marketing and he felt my “background” could be a good fit for their needs. Add another 2K per month retainer to the existing 5K and I was an official freelance marketing and sales consultant for hire.

    I’m still addicted to the freelance model after 9 years. I only made one small change in 2004, after finding Peter’s first Well-Fed Writer on the Internet in ’03. I decided to focus only on one small component in my “background” and become a commercial writer. What a great choice it turned out to be. While 2009 was a challenging year, I enjoyed 100K+ in the previous 5 years while rarely leaving my home office; and after a slight ’09 reinvention of myself and my approach, I’ve spent the past three months swamped with work again.

    I do feel the current business and economic landscape is more unwieldy than most of us are used to, but I also find it still heavy on opportunity. slr

  12. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    I was actually just thinking about this topic this morning when answering some reader emails. One person went on about how the slow economy is making it impossible to survive as a freelancer. I told her essentially what you say here — that opportunities are plentiful for freelancers in this kind of economy, and she just needed to change how she was looking for them.

    It might make me sound heartless, but I love this kind of economy. It shakes things up in the freelance world. Some competition drops out because they don’t know how to market themselves in these conditions, and at the same time more companies are willing to turn to freelancers. Yes, some freelance clients might cut budgets, but I find that for every one of them there are several more happy to hire because freelancers are simply more cost effective. When all is said and done, some of those former clients come back as their budgets do and some of the new clients will leave when they go back to full-timers. I take it as an opportunity to show those new clients how valuable the freelance relationship can be, and it tends to pay off. More often than not those clients keep coming back.

    Yes, the recession’s bred a lot of freelancers who settle for low-paying work and then complain that it’s all the economy’s or global market’s fault they can’t be paid more. But it also gives those willing to work for it an incredible opportunity to make their mark. It’s all in whether or not they choose to take advantage of it.

  13. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Roxane – Don’t forget … you can probably ‘try before you buy’ with your local chamber(s). That is, attend a meeting or two as a guest and see how you like it. Another strategy I like to use = I call the chamber a few days before the meeting and find out expected attendance. Some events are better attended than others. Once you are in the door & comfortable … start thinking about YOU as the guest speaker at one of their future meetings. This can position you as the expert in a given area … and ultimately, lead to leads. Good luck!

  14. Lori W.
    Lori W. says:

    I thought I’d posted before, but for some reason the website ate my answer.

    Have I seen this play out in my business? Absolutely. Time and again. In fact, recently a long-time colleague whom I hadn’t spoken with in about four years got in touch. His mega-corporation, which never hired freelancers, is now wanting my services. So I guess that answers the second question, too. Yes, I’m filling in for those who are no longer there. In one client’s case, I AM their marketing department (small company, small jobs). They attempted to low-ball my fee, but I held firm, dropped them, and they came back hat in hand begging for my services at my price. Amen.

    My journey to freelancing was accidental. When new management came on board the magazine staff, I knew in three days I was soon to be history. It took them five months, but it happened. Luckily, I’d sensed it and cleaned out my desk a month prior, including key contact information. It was still a shock to be walked out the door, but I had freelance – and ironically, temp – work within a week. I did temp on and off for a few years (mostly to fill in the freelance gaps), but I haven’t temped in four or five years. I’ll never go back, even if I did get an office with a window again. This is the best job I’ve had. Oh, the boss can be a bitch, but if she gets enough caffeine in her, she’s almost bearable. 🙂

  15. Jill Gormley
    Jill Gormley says:

    It’s tough out there, no doubt, but it’s tough for everyone, which can mean rich opportunities for us. This morning I heard from a former colleague who is the marketing director at a major law firm. A client of his firm needed a writer for a small project and he wanted to refer the client to me. Nice, but it was a very small project. However, during our conversation my friend mentioned that the crummy economy had the attorneys at his firm scrambling to market their individual practices to bring in new clients to the firm. Most of them have little marketing experience (traditionally it’s the rare lawyer who is willing to get out and sell his or her services, and that’s especially true of the attorneys who work at the big firms) so my friend is swamped trying to train the attorneys to market effectively and support their efforts.
    I figured other law firm marketing directors may be having similar experiences and that producing copy and written materials may be shoved on a back burner while they deal with urgent requests for help from their firms’ lawyers. So, I spent the rest of the morning cold-calling about twenty of them. The reaction was so positive it is almost frightening–one project in hand, two follow-up phone calls scheduled to talk in more detail about other potential projects, and enthusiastic responses from several others who don’t have anything right now but are thrilled to know I’m out there… I would never have had this kind of response two years ago.
    Also, regarding the Chamber, I live in a small community and I’ve found Chamber membership helpful. The majority of my clients are located in big cities, but through the Chamber I’ve developed a nice network of local contacts who provide me with a steady stream of small jobs. The projects are less lucrative, but the small local clients seem to pay more promptly. My biggest challenge during this recession has been managing cash flow, as many of my larger clients are delaying paying vendor invoices. A regular flow of small checks keeps the edge off.
    One of the nice things my Chamber does is a quarterly business card exchange. They limit attendance to about 25 businesses, and each business gets about two minutes to explain the product or service they offer. Everyone gets everyone else’s business card. This sort of thing is great for people like us, because so many small businesses don’t even realize that they can hire a writer to produce web copy or a brochure or ghost write a speech for them–they think they need an agency for that. If your Chamber has similar events I suggest attending, especially if, like me, you’re on the shy side and not comfortable networking at big mixers where you don’t know many people.

  16. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Wow – what great stuff here. Geniuses. I’m surrounded by geniuses.

    Roxane, other names for folks like us: commercial writer, commercial freelancer, marketing writer, marketing copywriter, business copywriter, copywriter. I’d steer clear of “independent communications consultant” – it can mean too many things, and doesn’t necessarily say “writer” and I think that’s important.

    Michael, at the bottom of the a new comment screen is a “Browse” box to add a picture…

    Thanks William, for underscoring the new reality – companies realizing the value of getting the services they need ONLY when they need them.

    And thanks to all of you – Elaine, Stephen, William, Steve, Lori, Jill – who all shared firsthand accounts of this trend in action, Very exciting stuff, though NOT surprising stuff. Econ 101 dictates a lot of this. I think what several of you said is SO true: so many prospective clients don’t even know that people like us exist. And when they discover us, oftentimes, it’s literally like a kid with a new toy. They can’t get enough of what we bring to their business. That’s absolutely been the case with a number of my new clients over the past few years, and it’s sure to get better.

    Jill, I liked your story so much, I may reprint it in the March issue of the E-PUB coming out next week. Really great stuff. She went where she knew the work wasn’t getting done, but NEEDED to get done, and, happily, though again, unsurprisingly, she got a very warm reception. Anyone getting any ideas here?

    And thanks for weighing in Jenn (nice to have you here!). You put voice to what many of us only think: that tough economies does have a sort of…cleansing effect. And that’s just fiiiiine with me.


  17. Roxane B. Salonen
    Roxane B. Salonen says:

    Peter, yes, I think “writer” needs to be in there somewhere, too. I agree. Tonight I met with a consultant-type person who believes she can help me get started and define what I will be doing. We met for several hours (no fee involved — she’s just a friendly person I met at a communications luncheon who wants to help) and we tossed ideas back and forth. In the end, we came up with this: Communications Specialist. Under that, in smaller font (on a business card) will be: Listening – Writing – Speaking. I think that zeros in on what I do best. This was after I told her my life story (smile). We thought about “writing specialist” too but I actually can offer more than just that. So, we’re working it out. If anyone has any thoughts to the contrary on what I just proposed, I’m all ears. You all have been an awesome resource, as I’ve said before. The energy here is super. It makes me excited about what’s ahead. Thank you all!

  18. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Jill – per your comment on cash flow — “…My biggest challenge during this recession has been managing cash flow…”. This was an issue for me as well. Then, last summer I implemented one of Peter’s strategies—requesting 50% down before the project even starts. I have not had a single client balk. Most of my clients understand and appreciate this. Best to you.

  19. Mele
    Mele says:

    Coming in bit late here, but great stuff! Nice to hear that people are optimistic about the future. And Peter, GREAT new look!

  20. Carolyn
    Carolyn says:

    I was “downsized” at in October 2009. I had been working 50 to 60 hours a week as a marketing manager and it turns out that they had no plans as to how to cover the workload without me there. The woman I managed is now working 13 hour days. When was working in marketing, I was always encouraged to find “creative” ways to get the work done. I would have loved to have found people like all of us freelancers. I just didn’t have time to look–hence, I agree with the idea of cold calling.

    Within a month of losing my job, I was lucky enough to read The Well-Fed Writer and I knew then what I was going to do. While my husband was concerned that it was a bad time to start a business, I just thought about how much I would have like to have hired myself as a temp when I was in the corporate world. I know that there are many more companies working with ridiculously lean marketing staff. I just launched my website and am starting the market myself as the back-up marketer who can support the busy marketing department.

  21. CopyStratic
    CopyStratic says:

    Don’t get me wrong. Love the idea of freelancing full-time. Just that rounding up new business is so blasted difficult, to say nothing of dead-beat clients who won’t pay their bill. Was laid off from my Internet Copywriter job in December 2008 and had a pretty good run at temping and freelancing until summer 2009, and everything just came to a full stop. Nothing. No messages, no emails, no more work. It was pretty scary. Even considered waiting tables or going back to sub teach. Thankfully, I recently landed another temp job copyediting catalogs, brochures and newsletters. Always felt more relieved when I’m able to work a 8-5 gig and then carve out a few hours in the evening to promote the freelance stuff.

    Daniel Bartel

  22. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    Daniel — Out of curiosity, what kinds of things have you been doing to help clients find you instead of the other way around. I never pitch to get business, and I get more inquiries than I can handle just through my blogs, professional site, and referrals so I pass a lot of those gigs off to clients. I haven’t seen any kind of slow-down, and most business writers I know haven’t either. I’m just wondering if you’re doing something (or maybe NOT doing something) in particular that is causing you to face such a different scenario.

  23. CopyStratic
    CopyStratic says:

    Congrats on your redesign. Wow, looks fantastic. I’m definitely not doing something correctly. Installed Analytics last Feb. and have well over 100 visitors, just no conversion. Also, don’t have blog set up, which is big prob, I know. Web guy I’m talking to about helping is too busy with other projects. My knowledge of html is fairly limited. Ergo, stuck in a bit of holding pattern. Any recommendations?


  24. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    Keep in mind that 100 visitors really isn’t that many. So it might not be that you’re doing something wrong, but rather that you just have to stick with it and grow that audience. It also depends what kind of visitors you’re attracting. Are you getting traffic from more general search terms, or ones targeted to actual buyers (with blogs that’s the difference between reaching colleagues and potential clients).

    I’d say definitely add a blog. They’re great tools for A) showing that you know what you’re talking about and B) improving search rankings due to the regularly updated content. Blogs also give prospects a reason to keep coming back, even if they don’t convert to sales the first time around. They let you build relationships, which build trust, which leads to later hiring. I’m not sure what you’re using to host your site now, but I generally recommend WordPress — whether for a blog, a static-looking site, or a static site / blog combo. WP sites tend to rank well naturally and once you have it setup, it’s very easy to edit and update.

    I’d also reconsider the footer links. It looks like keyword stuffing for SEO more than anything else, and if search engines consider it the same it will hurt you — not help you. They’re also just too long visually for the limited space you have there. If you really want them for navigation, I’d try to get the Web guy to fix the footer and make it full width so they have some more room to spread out.

  25. Sapna Kumar
    Sapna Kumar says:

    Freelancers are funny. They think they’ve got it figured out. But for those of us with pre-existing health conditions who are legally not guaranteed the ability to purchase individual insurance plans until 2014 (when health reform finally gets implemented), we are screwed. Thanks to employers figuring out that they don’t have to insure people, those of us who need insurance to manage our health are left paying for COBRA for 18 months and job-hunting for that lone employer who will actually not take advantage of us and will provide benefits. And freelancers are really funny when they boast that they are not giving in to a J.O.B. Well, you are getting screwed walking around without health insurance or investing in a company 401(k).

  26. Jennifer Mattern
    Jennifer Mattern says:

    Right Sapna. Being able to consistently see double digit “raises” every year (unlike any employee I’ve ever met) is getting “screwed.” Being able to take part in professional organizations, Chambers of Commerce, and other options to take advantage of health insurance benefits is getting “screwed.” Being able to set up our own retirement accounts without an employer (which don’t all match, so there isn’t always that clear cut a benefit) is getting “screwed.” It just sounds like you need to do more research.

  27. Star
    Star says:

    I am with Sapna–some of us are even working hard so that the health bill won’t go into effect. Not only will you be able to buy, but will HAVE to buy or pay a fine–and the prices will not be cheap and care will be rationed even more than now. Those chamber health plans, if an area has them, are for those without pre-existings. Yes, you can set up a retirement account–anyone can. But you also pay both halves of the FICA, known as the self-employment tax, and then–take it from me–when you do collect SS or Medicare, you will be treated like a mooch and pariah. There are reasons to be or stay independent in this business, but in today’s atmosphere, there are fewer, and access to insurance and at least in my experience, double-digit growth in reveues are not two of them.

  28. Jennifer Mattern
    Jennifer Mattern says:

    If you truly feel that strongly that the benefits aren’t in freelancing, there’s a really simple solution. Don’t do it. Or stop if you already are. Problem solved. For others, the benefits far outweigh including income growth that far exceeds interest on typical investments + raises of employees, plenty of insurance options that work for them (between spouses’ plans, chamber of commerce options, professional org options and self-insured options), and not having nearly as many problems with keeping work as someone looking for a single job in this atmosphere. If you’re not one of them, then it’s not for you. Nothing wrong with that. If the benefits change in future situations, then it’s an option always waiting for you. But the attitude from Sapna that it’s so “funny” that others are able to responsibly run a freelance business and take care of themselves quite well that way despite the concerns of others who don’t know how to do that in their own situation is ridiculous. If you’re cut out for it, you make it work. It’s not for everybody. The risks have their rewards for those who go out and find them, and if you’d prefer more traditional security than the kind freelancing affords, you have that option too.

  29. Jennifer Mattern
    Jennifer Mattern says:

    And I have to wonder why Sapna would troll in the first place — commenting primarily to insult freelancers over a year after the original post went up. That says plenty….

  30. Clair Betters
    Clair Betters says:

    I just want to say I’m beginner to blogging and site-building and certainly enjoyed you’re blog. Likely I’m want to bookmark your website . You amazingly come with remarkable writings. Appreciate it for sharing your website page.

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