The future is freelance. That’s according to the “Freelancing in America: 2017” study, commissioned by Upwork and Freelancers Union. The fourth annual study of the U.S. independent workforce found that freelance work is alive, thriving, and growing among skilled professionals.

Among the study’s most notable findings are that:

  • The U.S. freelance workforce is growing faster than the overall U.S. workforce, outpacing U.S. workforce growth at a rate 3x faster since 2014. It numbered 53 million in 2014 and grew to 57.3 million this year (8.1% growth since 2014) while the U.S. workforce grew from 156 million to 160 million in the same timeframe (2.6% growth).
  • At the current growth rate, freelancers will represent the majority of the U.S. workforce by 2027. This pace may be accelerated if the younger generation entering the workforce pursue freelance arrangements more frequently than older workers.
  • 54% of the U.S. workforce is not very confident that the work they do today is likely to exist in 20 years, owing in large part to automation and other technology-driven trends shaping the workforce as a whole.

Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork and co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Council on the Future of Gender, Education and Work, reflects on this systemic change, stating, “We are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution — a period of rapid change in work driven by increasing automation, but we have a unique opportunity to guide the future of work and freelancers will play more of a key role than people realize.”

Growing companies may not be as directly affected by these trends as independent workers themselves. But for companies of all sizes, these shifts — both what they say about the perspective of workers and about the opportunities they create to tap into new talent — deserve examination.

Interestingly, more workers are embarking on freelance careers out of choice than ever before.

According to the report, 63% of freelancers surveyed said they started freelancing more by choice, rather than more due to downsizing or other circumstantial changes making it a necessity — up 10 points from 53% since 2014.

One of the factors influencing this trend is the perceived stability of freelancing. Increasingly, freelancers view having a diversified portfolio of clients as being more secure than relying on a single employer (63% agree, up 10 points since 2016). Overall, the top drivers motivating people to start freelancing include the desire:

  • To be their own boss
  • To choose when they work
  • To choose their own projects
  • To choose where they work
  • To earn extra money

HOW COMPANIES SHOULD RESPOND

On the surface, companies may seem somewhat removed from the freelance marketplace — those that don’t currently contract with independent workers may seem especially unaffected by trends in either direction.

This isn’t the case. Companies of all sizes need to consider:

  • The need to retain internal talent who are at risk of departing for freelance arrangements
  • The opportunities to tap into the diverse talents offered by freelancers (also called “independent contractors,” “consultants,” or “contingent workers”)

Retaining internal talent

Two-thirds of freelancers say the freelance job market changed compared to three years ago, up 24 points since 2014 when only 42% said this. In fact, perceptions of freelancing as a career are becoming more positive.

As freelancing becomes a more attractive option, your best workers may start edging towards the door, believing that greener pastures lie in solo work. For this reason, your company may need to become more proactive about incentivizing top talent to stay.

Tapping into freelance talent

Incentivizing top internal talent to stay is important. But at the same time, your company should be looking for opportunities to fill talent gaps with the growing contingent workforce of freelance professionals.

Contracting with freelancers offers various advantages, including:

  • The ability to tap into desirable talent located outside of your geographic area
  • The flexibility to cover short-term or skill-specific gaps
  • Lower overhead, which allows for greater organizational flexibility and competitiveness
  • The stability of coverage offered by freelance agencies, which may combine multiple skillsets or minimize the potential disruption of solo workers

It’s also worth noting that freelancers may be more qualified to meet your company’s needs, given that 55% of freelancers participated in skill-related education in the last six months, compared to just 30% of non-freelancers.

If you have worker classification concerns, you’re not alone. However, as many companies have discovered, these questions can be easily navigated with the help of a third-party compliance solution.

In fact, the transition to contracting with freelance talent (which could encompass the titles “freelancer,” “independent contractor,” “consultant,” or “contingent worker,” among others) could be easier than you’d expect.

The benefits of tapping into this contingent workforce are likely to endure, or even grow, as its talent base expands. The companies that will be poised for success in the future are the ones that make an effort to leverage freelance talent today.