millennials-free-agents.jpgStaffing Industry Analysts (SIA), in its recent tally, projected the number of active U.S. contingent workers to have reached 44 million. In 2015, said SIA President Barry Asin, companies spent upward of $792 billion on non-traditional professionals. The contingent workforce won’t be “temporary” much longer, or even complementary. In many ways, on-demand work will become the norm, especially as Millennials continue to stream into the market. Yet businesses are failing to respond fast enough, even though they champion the use of contingent talent. Contract work is no longer a luxury or a cost-savings strategy for organizations. It’s the new way of business. And companies really aren’t prepared. Contingent workforce program leaders are more essential than ever before. They can’t be considered afterthoughts or support resources or vendors. They are emerging as the key executive figures in the era of agile employment. The notion of a traditional career is becoming a quaint tale we’ll read to our children. If you don’t want your company ending up as a page in that bedtime story, it’s time to partner with these contingent workforce experts.

Permanent Employment: A Tale of Yesteryear

The employment landscape as we know it, as our parents and grandparents knew it, is undergoing unprecedented shifts. Industry analysts, employment experts, labor economists and government regulators have all presented theories about the catalysts. In many ways, the general consensus echoes James Carville’s 1992 quip, “The economy, stupid.”

I don’t believe the changes we’re experiencing can be distilled so neatly. The Great Recession certainly played its part. Yet, we’ve gone through severe economic downturns before. Assuming the economy is our culprit, it may have been abetted, or even framed, by others. Those influences take the form of globalization, digitization, the Internet of Things and one of the most multigenerational talent forces in history. They’re also accelerating the expansion of the gig economy.

From the Boomers to the Millennials, employment data paint the same picture: the modern workforce is defined by change, multiple employers and a declining length of time at any given job. Based on figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average tenure for Millennials is three times shorter than for Boomers. And that likely means they’ll support an ever greater number of employers in their career lifetimes.

“The traditional model of lifetime employment, so well-suited to periods of relative stability, is too rigid for today’s networked age,” wrote LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman in his book The Alliance. “Few American companies can provide the traditional career ladder for their employees anymore; the model is in varying degrees of disarray globally.”

“What conclusions can be drawn from this data?” DCR Workforce asked. “A contingent workforce is defined as ‘a provisional group of workers who work for an organization on a non-permanent basis.’ That describes all of us!”

The careers our grandparents described to us no longer seem difficult to attain — they now appear illusory. Trying to secure a lifelong job with a single employer could be viewed, by contemporary standards, as forcing a square peg into a round hole.

Millennials understand that the career ladders of their forebears are outdated. They also grasp the circumstances that have instigated the dramatic transformations in the job market. They’ve lived them! Millennials have weathered crushing debt, recession, the bursting of the housing bubble, global financial and political crisis, and a stagnant employment market.

Adam Poswolsky, author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, writes in Quartz that, as a result, “millennials are not motivated by money. Rather, they are driven to make the world more compassionate, innovative, and sustainable. This isn’t a stereotype; it’s simply the truth.”

They’re also switching jobs at a rapid pace. While many in today’s labor market lament the transitory nature of jobs, the push isn’t necessarily coming from companies that are trying to avoid fully burdened employment costs – Millennials themselves, in hopping from role to role and striving for autonomy, are propelling the growth of on-demand economies.

Millennials Are The Workforce: We Must Understand Their Motivations

“Overall,” Poswolsky says, “we are less concerned with traditional metrics of success, like savings and home ownership, and more concerned with creating lives defined by meaning, community, and shared value.” Let’s look at the data that backup this statement.

  • Deloitte’s 2015 survey of millennial talent discovered that 75 percent of these workers believe businesses are too invested in their own agendas rather than improving society.
  • At any given time, about 28 percent of younger workers feel their skills are fully utilized or appreciated by their employers. And 90 percent of those studied expressed a burning desire to really put their skills to the test and make positive differences in their organizations and communities.
  • Half of the Millennials researched by Deloitte admitted that they would take a pay cut to find work that matches their aspirations, values and growth.
  • Gallup, like BLS, confirmed that younger workers switch jobs at three times the rate of their older colleagues.
  • In the same report, less than 30 percent of Millennials felt engaged in their jobs. Not only are millennial talent the majority population of the employment market, they are the least engaged. Yet, they long to be.

Millennial Freedom and the Era of Free Agents

“In the at-will era,” Hoffman asserts, “employees have been encouraged to think of themselves as ‘free agents,’ seeking out the best opportunities for growth and changing jobs whenever better offers beckoned.”

Hoffman urges the business world to develop a new employment framework conducive to mutual trust, benefit and investment in the objectives of the company and the workers: “An ideal framework encourages employees to develop their personal networks and act entrepreneurially without becoming mercenary job-hoppers.”

And yet, this model already exists in contingent talent. Actual “free agents” currently total 53 million American workers in varying iterations of indirect talent, contractors and freelancers. Four short years from now, that count is expected to rise by another seven million. Over the last decade, the BLS points out, the average tenure for any employee age 25 or older was five years. Today’s professionals, especially those in the millennial generation, have embraced contingent work. And we have no idea what tomorrow will bring, The U.S. Department of Labor notes that 65 percent of school children will take positions in jobs that haven’t yet been invented.

Amid all of this flux, Poswolsky poses the million-dollar question: “So why are so many parents, colleges, and corporate HR programs still preparing millennials for a future they don’t want?”

His answer? Well, it rings with the tremendous opportunities we could create within the contingent workforce. “What all this suggests is that the US needs a new way of thinking about careers. We need to embrace instability and experimentation, and help the workforce of the future achieve what it actually wants: a way to make meaning, not just money. Unlike the career ladder mindset, which forces you to move in only one direction (up), let’s implement the lily-pad mindset, in which workers visualize their career as a series of interconnecting leaps between different opportunities. What holds everything together are the roots of the lily pads—your purpose. Your roots may be driving you to do one thing now, but that thing may change in five years.”

Reimagining the Value of Contingent Work

Unlike traditional employees, who live in the shadow of insecurity shaped by Employment at Will, contingent talent have no illusions about the permanence of their positions. They are brought in to tackle a project, and they move on. They’re more likely to stick out the assignment. They are not motivated by the fear of termination. They are driven to learn new skills, gain new insights, help clients innovate solutions and then transfer those accomplishments to the next project. Contingent workforce program leaders have a golden opportunity to help their clients and their workers here.

Labor economists love to portray contract work as the villain of the employment story. However, that comes from the perception of past generations who are struggling to acclimate to modern business dynamics. Contingent workforce program leaders can cultivate an exceptional crop of gifted talent by focusing on the alignment of their motivations and the benefits of contingent roles.

As Poswolsky says, “Let’s start treating our careers as a lifelong experiment instead of a preordained slog.” That’s precisely where contingent workforce program leaders can shine.

  • Talk to candidates and contingent talent who’ve completed their assignments. Really learn about their interests, challenge their assumptions and help them find experiences suited to their goals. MSPs and staffing providers serve a broad spectrum of clients. They have the ability to keep contingent talent engaged in new projects. The workforce wins and the clients win.
  • Demonstrate how every assignment is a new experience and chance to develop skills or knowledge.
  • Discover your talents’ missions, what they’re best at, what they want to improve and what business cultures they’ll flourish in. Use that information to place them in optimal environments.
  • Help clients adapt. Encourage them to build a program that allows talent to experience the office as a classroom. Make efforts to avoid measuring workers exclusively by metrics and learn to track their interests, purpose, aptitudes and skills – especially those that might be suited for a different role than they were contracted for. Clients and workers may find greater rewards from switching things up.
  • Understand that if a worker isn’t the perfect fit for the job order at hand, he or she may be ideal elsewhere. Always keep potential superstars on the bench, ready to deploy. Maintain interactions and stay engaged. Actively seek jobs for those candidates with other clients.
  • Contingent workforce program leaders have an objective view of the client organization – they are not part of it and can see without bias. This empowers them to clearly articulate goals and objectives for talent from a perspective aligned to the needs of the worker and the client.

Contingent workforce program leaders have already embraced the new employment paradigm, where contract professionals are true free agents — not merely permanent employees functioning as such. Contingent gigs can enhance work-life balance, foster career development and marketability, and help Millennials find the projects that satisfy their values.

Traditional employers struggle to fill open positions with highly skilled talent, yet it seems they’re not looking in the right places. Our non-traditional economy demands a non-traditional approach to talent acquisition and development. That’s why businesses should be turning to contingent workforce providers as consultative partners, not just short-term fixes for what’s really a longer-term investment in success.