Is traditional freelancing all that it's cracked up to be?

Full time is for the birds, right? But traditional freelancing isn't what it used to be either.

Creatives of all sorts tend towards less rigid lifestyles than most other folks. We don't need a major research grant to know that unlike our straight-laced pocket-protector brethren, art directors and graphic artists are far more likely to be found working at a coffee lounge in the middle of the day.

This might be our version of "working remotely". It could also mean we're between freelance gigs and simultaneously tweaking both our portfolio website, and our caffeine levels.

While the creative industries have always had more freelance workers than most other professions, over the last decade or more a number of things have conspired to make employment matters worse for the technically savvy creative freelancer.

(Here we are looking specifically at the more traditional in-person/on-site freelance market, rather than the online freelance market best left to a separate discussion).

Freelance As Commodity

Life as a freelancer used to be fine for many of us, even if it meant we were riding an economic roller-coaster at times. Because back in the day there were enough safety nets to cover our derrieres.

For example, certain industries had the concept of "hazard pay", which didn't just apply to firemen. Both the advertising and film industries recognized that in many ways even their full time employees were much like their freelancers. This was because most folks worked on specific projects or accounts. And sooner or later, projects complete, and accounts move their business to other agencies.

The people on those teams would then often be let go. As compensation, these industries paid staff and freelancers a somewhat healthier salary than similar – but more stable – work elsewhere.

There was also another concept that has evaporated over the years: Overtime! If you are lucky to still have it today, you almost certainly don't get what your predecessors did, like double-time. And frequently if there is overtime, it is based on the number of hours over 40 per week, rather than any daily overtime. Thus employers get to sidestep paying extra for your super-human efforts.

For example, say you are be working on an important deadline and asked to work a double or even triple shift. Despite the negative effects such work has on your life and health, you would still not get "overtime" pay for it, just your normal rate. Bummer.

And, there is more. Because in many markets, freelancers are no longer treated as people or employees, but more like "at will commodities". For example, companies have no issues with booking someone for an entire week, and then without notice canceling the project on that Tuesday afternoon. The company (or freelance agency) may or may not pay you for the remainder of that Tuesday. But for the rest of the week that you kept open for them, you are so out of luck.

Let's do just one more common example. One that hoisted atop all the other items seems to just rub salt in the wound. In addition to paying less for your services, hiring and firing contrary to agreed bookings, we freelancers are also now asked to "Bring your own laptop."

When I first started seeing this a while back, I couldn't believe my eyes. It's one thing to work remotely and have your own gear. But to be asked to go on-site and still underwrite a freelance employer's operation seemed outlandish. But it has become the norm. We are now expected to provide hardware, software and our own tech support.

I'm waiting to see the first job ad stating: "Please bring your own chair, as well."

Tech Downsides For Freelancers

Some of our problems stem from tech itself. While the digital revolution has spurred the creation of many new jobs in media, technology itself is also one of the top culprits in our creative job crunch.

The first issue has been that creative tech jobs are just unbelievably attractive to so many people. It used to be that creative fields were for those childhood doodlers and writers in class. But tech changed that, and soon everyone wanted to be creating designs, 3D monsters, and branding campaigns.

In the early days of creative tech, this was fine, supply and demand were in balance. But then all the colleges started pushing digital media, and new specialty schools began popping up just to train digital artists for creative tech jobs. Supply and demand shifted.

One parent of one of these students summed it up well:

"When my son wanted to go into 3D effects work for film, I was really skeptical. But I looked into it and those jobs were starting out at $80,000 US a year, not bad! So I gave him the green light and paid for his education. But by the time he graduated, the market was glutted and he was lucky to get an entry level job at half that amount. I'm angry, and so is he."

Like with any gold rush scenario, these industries have attracted more people than they could ever really support. The old supply and demand flipped from the early days of digital when few knew how to use the tools, to today when too many do.

This has effected our markets in many ways, both entry-level and established creatives, and both full-time and freelance workers. With so many applicants for each creative tech job, it is a buyer's market, a trend that began even before the global banking crisis.

As a result we have seen the (adjusted) hourly rate for creatives in most markets plummet. Many have an hourly rate that is no higher – and often even lower – than the same job paid 10 or 15 years ago.

Technology has also given employers options they didn't have a few years ago. In addition to being uber-selective on who they hire, they are also opting to simply not hire at all. Technology has made subbing out work to other countries very easy, and many companies have been taking advantage of this. So the inveterate freelancer is now competing against perhaps a few hundred local applicants, as well as all the talented people abroad.

What's a freelance creative to do? We'd love to hear your thoughts below. How do you navigate this brave new freelance world?

Words: Lance Evans

Lance Evans is creative director of Graphlink Media.

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