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Gig Engineering PUBLIC ACCESS

Some engineers love the freedom and range of projects offered by freelance work. Others just want a fulltime job.

[+] Author Notes

Kayt Sukel is the author of The Art of Risk and covers science and technology from outside Houston.

Mechanical Engineering 140(04), 44-49 (Apr 01, 2018) (6 pages) Paper No: ME-18-APR4; doi: 10.1115/1.2018-APR-4

This article focuses on increase in the number of freelancer engineers and benefits of freelancing. According to a survey, freelancing in America 2017, estimates that more than 57 million Americans are currently freelancing. Also, experts believe this number will grow rapidly as both new and well-established companies discover that traditional hiring models are not meeting their needs. The article also emphasizes that freelancing allows people to live their life as they want to live it and craft their work into that life, rather than live where they have to for work and craft your lifestyle to fit into their work. The freedom and flexibility of freelancing are something that you just cannot find in most traditional jobs. According to an expert, no matter which platform an engineer prefers, online talent platforms are another key to success as a freelancer. Successful freelancers really are entrepreneurs—they see the demand for new skills, they see that they can be paid more for having those skills, so they are always out there learning and retraining themselves so they can get those job.

“What we’re seeing, on the freelance side, is that there are people who realize there is a different way to work.”

Grahic Jump Location“What we’re seeing, on the freelance side, is that there are people who realize there is a different way to work.”

Since he was a youngster, Patrick Kalahar has been drawn to all things mechanical. He spent the best parts of his formative years pulling things apart and then putting them back together—sometimes even successfully.

So it’s probably not much of a surprise that Kalahar made a beeline for the mechanical engineering program at North Dakota State University in Fargo to learn mechanical design, process control, and CAD. Upon graduation, Kalahar settled down, got married, and took a permanent mechanical engineering position with Rockwell Collins, a top avionics multinational, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

As stories go, Kalahar’s is fairly typical. He followed a traditional career path: four years in a rigorous engineering program and then a full-time job with vacation and health benefits. Many believe this is how great engineering careers begin.

Kalahar had a problem: even after nine years with Rockwell, it didn’t feel like a great fit.

“It was a good job, I didn’t love it,” he explained. “Rockwell is an avionics manufacturer that does a lot of government work, so much of what I did there was process and documentation. I wanted to do something more design and product focused.”

Your stereotypical engineer might just grin and bear it or look for greener pastures elsewhere. But Kalahar took a risk. He joined the gig economy.

First, he started freelancing as a product design engineer and hung his digital shingle on various online freelancing platforms to find work. Sooner than he expected, he found his services were in demand.

As a family man with three young children, Kalahar finds the flexibility of freelancing a huge benefit.

“It’s worked out better than I could have ever imagined,” he said. “Between projects where I’m helping smaller companies design stuff for manufacturers and the flexibility to set my schedule in a way that works for my family, I’m really liking it.”

Kalahar is far from alone. While many may think of the gig economy workers as artists, digital nomads, and the odd Uber driver, freelancing is becoming a more attractive option for American workers across a variety of fields—including more traditional professions, such as engineering.

In fact, a recent survey, Freelancing in America 2017, estimates that more than 57 million Americans are currently freelancing. And experts believe this number will grow rapidly as both new and well-established companies discover that traditional hiring models are not meeting their needs.

Shoshana Deutschkron, senior director of communications at UpWork, an online platform that connects freelancers with employers and that co-sponsored the Freelancing in American 2017 survey, finds many reasons why individuals end up in freelance careers, which UpWork defines as folks working as small business owners, temporary employees, independent contractors, or moonlighters looking for a little supplemental income.

“What we’re seeing, on the freelance side, is that there are people who realize there is a different way to work,” she said. “Freelancing allows people to live their life as they want to live it and craft their work into that life, rather than live where they have to for work and craft your lifestyle to fit into their work. The freedom and flexibility of freelancing is something that you just can’t find in most traditional jobs.”

Some stumble into that freedom and flexibility by accident, perhaps after being laid off from a permanent position or moving because a spouse or partner changes jobs. Others, like Kalahar, make a conscious decision to choose that freedom and flexibility. Once tasted, Deutschkron said, it can be difficult to return to a normal 9-to-5.

But there is a second side to the evolution of American freelancing, Deutschkron argues. Today’s businesses need it.

“Traditional hiring models are no longer sustainable,” she said. “If you are a smaller business, and only hire locally, you won’t have access to all the skills that you may need to thrive in your market. So finding a way to open yourself to a global talent pool through freelancing is a huge benefit.”

Erik Allebest, CEO of Chess.com, an online website for chess players, agrees. More and more, he starts most of his hiring relationships with a freelance contract.

“Often, I have a need but I don’t know much demand I’ll actually have,” he explained. “It’s a bureaucratic nightmare to on-board a full-time employee, between all the different state regulations and benefits. It’s not something you really want to do unless you know that long-term demand is really there—and sometimes you just don’t know until you start working with someone,” he said.

“But it’s also about finding the right people for the jobs. I live in Silicon Valley. Why would I try to hire someone in one of the most competitive, expensive places in the world when I can look at people from around the globe?”

The internet, which widens the talent pool in ways never previously imagined, made the freelancing boom possible, said Mark Muro, who studies the gig economy as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“I have a lot more control over the kind of work I do now. I get to do a lot more of the work that I like to do now.”

Grahic Jump Location“I have a lot more control over the kind of work I do now. I get to do a lot more of the work that I like to do now.”

“The availability of digital platforms allows the possibility of this way of working,” Muro explained. “'Gigs’ are not new, but the efficient management and organization of them is. New business models have now come into shape, with new ways for people to organize their work lives.

“For businesses, this offers new opportunities to organize freelancers and reduce their costs. For workers, gigging can allow them to work at their own pace, find their way into a new job market, or avoid constant drudgery that they may find in a more traditional position.”

Muro emphasizes that no field is exempt from this evolving model of work. He expects to see more digital platforms connecting freelance talent to companies across a variety of disciplines.

This includes mechanical and manufacturing engineering. Which raises an important question: what might a mechanical engineering career look like in the emerging on-demand economy?

As the father of three elementary school-aged children, Kalahar waxes poetic about the advantages of a flexible schedule-something he did not have as a permanent employee.

“We have doctor appointments and dentist appointments and all this other stuff going on,” he said. “A few years ago, my wife got a new position in Oregon, where we live now. It was really nice that I could dial back my work before we moved to get the house ready for sale and help get the kids settled once we moved. It wasn’t even a big deal for my work to move with me. The flexibility to set my own schedule is huge.”

Katie Maldonado, a contract mechanical engineer based in San Jose, Calif., seconds the advantages of flexibility. But she also appreciates the ability to work in new and diverse projects.

“The opportunity to learn new things, to see these new trends and technologies coming to life, is a lot of fun,” she said. “It keeps you learning, keeps you on your toes, and helps you grow both as an engineer and a person.”

Kalahar agrees. “I have a lot more control over the kind of work I do now. I get to do a lot more of the work that I like to do now,” he said.

Another item in the pro column is the pay. Established freelancers can often set their own hourly rates, and they usually make quite a bit more than they did in their permanent positions.

“You can make great money. The problem is, you never really know how long your contract is going to last.”

Grahic Jump Location“You can make great money. The problem is, you never really know how long your contract is going to last.”

Jeff Smith, a contract manufacturing engineer based in Clayton, North Carolina, said that contracting has allowed him to significantly increase his income.

“You can make great money,” he said. “The problem is, you never really know how long your contract is going to last.”

The “feast or famine” aspect is Smith’s biggest issue with freelancing.

“In one gig that was supposed to last an entire year, we came in with our prototype earlier than expected,” he said. “The company laid off the entire team of contractors in response. It’s hard to be in a position where you do so well at your job that they terminate your contract early and you find yourself out of work.”

Then there is the challenge of finding gigs. Kalahar said that, by far, his greatest freelancing challenge is finding work—and then balancing that work so he can keep up his flexible schedule.

“I spend a lot of time pursuing jobs,” he said. “You can end up spending a lot of time talking to a potential client and think you are a great fit, but for whatever reason, the job never moves forward. It feels like lost time.”

“I also have to be careful about selecting work. I try to take on only projects where I know I have the skills and the time to do it right. And it can take time to figure out how that all will work,” he said.

Kalahar admits that he often works later at night or on weekends to keep up with demand. Yet having the flexibility to take off as needed for his family makes those sacrifices more than worth it.

Then there is the issue of benefits, such as healthcare and retirement plans. They are not part of the typical freelance package. Healthcare, especially, has been in flux, and finding affordable individual plans remains a challenge in some parts of the country.

Kalahar relies on his wife’s benefits from her full-time position for his family. Maldonado has chosen to be in the odd “in-between,” working as a full-time employee for a company that hires her out. Smith, the parent to a special needs child, is currently without insurance and frustrated by that lack. He hopes that he or his wife will find a job that offers coverage soon.

Beyond those issues, Smith, Kalahar, and Maldonado’s thoughts echo several other findings from the Freelancing in America 2017 survey. They, like the survey respondents, raise some concerns about being first in line to be cut during any corporate downsizing. Often, they do not feel like part of the company “team,” even when they work onsite.

Yet Deutschkron said that more than half the survey respondents said that they would not return to a fulltime position for any amount of money.

“The lifestyle is so valuable to so many freelancers, it goes above and beyond the money,” she said. “They are trying to make a living, obviously, and they have concerns about income predictability. But the pros, for many freelancers, far outweigh the cons.”

Given the good, the bad, and the ugly, how can freelancing mechanical engineers find success? Rich Pearson, senior vice president of marketing for UpWork, believes it starts with the right skill set.

“Successful freelancers really are entrepreneurs— they see the demand for new skills, they see that they can be paid more for having those skills, so they are always out there learning and retraining themselves so they can get those jobs,” he said.

Freelancing in America 2017 supports that notion. It finds that freelancers work hard to keep their skill set current, seeking out training in high demand areas like Internet of Things and machine learning so they can write their own ticket. While some contracts and gigs provide some training, most freelancers pay for continuing education out of their own pocket.

“Successful freelancers really are entrepreneurs— they see the demand for new skills, they see that they can be paid more for having those skills, so they are always out there learning and retraining themselves so they can get those jobs.”

—Rich Pearson, Upwork

Grahic Jump Location“Successful freelancers really are entrepreneurs— they see the demand for new skills, they see that they can be paid more for having those skills, so they are always out there learning and retraining themselves so they can get those jobs.”—Rich Pearson, Upwork

The right skill set is not just limited to engineering chops, Deutschkron cautions. Hiring managers are also very interested in soft skills like communication and emotional intelligence.

“Especially in the field of engineering, if you have good soft skills, you can really differentiate yourself,” she said. “If you have an entrepreneurial mindset, good engineering skills, and those great soft skills, you are going to really stand out and succeed as a freelancer.” This is especially important when it comes to finding gigs. Freelancing in America 2017 respondents said that the number one way they found gigs was through networking and personal referrals.

Even so, it is critical to establish an online presence. Many freelancers, like Kalahar, rely on platforms like UpWork to help them find their gigs. Others, like Smith, may use conventional job sites like CareerBuilder or USAJobs.

No matter which platform an engineer prefers, online talent platforms are another key to success as a freelancer, Muro said.

“There are now so many digital platforms that have organized gigging in a way we’ve never seen before,” he said. “I’d advise students coming out of college to get to know them—because they will almost certainly work through those platforms at some point in their career.”

That may sound like a remarkable statement, yet experts estimate that nearly half the workforce will be freelance in just a few decades. The gig economy is here to stay, Muro said, and workers will have to adapt and become more entrepreneurially minded in the future.

Fortunately, most freelancers are quite good at that. And while Smith likes to talk about one day finding his so-called “unicorn,” a full-time engineering position with benefits, Kalahar said that the freelance life suits him just fine.

“If I found the right company, I suppose I could see going back to work on a full-time basis and being part of a team for a smaller company doing innovative work,” he said. “But if I had to choose between what I had before, working for a big corporate entity or what I do freelancing now, freelancing wins hands down.”

Copyright © 2018 by ASME
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