By Anita Creamer
Published May 11, 2010
Nationally and locally, the numbers are soaring: The long-term unemployed are going into business for themselves as independent contractors, cobbling together brand-new, Brand You careers.
As Charles Russell, a Web application developer who was laid off by Yahoo in 2008, likes to put it, if no one else is hiring, you might as well hire yourself.
"I hear recruiters say that they're hearing more noises about hiring now," said Russell, 54, who lives in Citrus Heights. "I can't wait for the noise. I need an income now."
By December 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people who said they were self-employed specifically because they couldn't land full-time jobs had jumped to 1.2 million, more than double the pre-recession number.
Federal statistics from 2005 show that more than 42 million Americans -- one-third of the work force -- already had part-time or temporary jobs, and more than 10 million were independent contractors.
Some experts think the growth of the flexible employment trend shows that the American workplace is undergoing a fundamental change. Others insist it's a temporary offshoot of the recession, a predictable side effect of tough times.
Russell simply thinks he needs to do something to keep from losing his house. Besides taking contract work individually, he and a handful of partners have started their own business, building websites using the Drupal software platform.
Wearing nice slacks, dress shirts and ties, the partners regularly meet in a corner of a Panera Bread restaurant in a Roseville shopping center built during the suburb's boom years. Russell sets up his laptop and sips coffee as the lunchtime crowd dwindles.
"A lot of the jobs now are temporary contracting positions," said Ron McClure, 63, a certified project manager whose most recent business, a residential development company, took a nose dive when the economy tanked. "If you get one of those, you take it."
They would rather have full-time jobs, period. And they're looking for work. But with Sacramento's unemployment rate at 13.1 percent, the competition for full-time openings can be fierce.
For workers unhinged from the world of permanent employment, freelance positions are a way to pay the bills -- an opportunity to make an income and get a foot in the door with a potential new employer, as well as a means of taking control of their own careers.
This is not your parents' job market, successful independent contractors argue, so why try to have your parents' long-term, one- or two-company careers?
"This flexible work force has been growing since the 1970s," said Sara Horowitz of the New York-based Freelancers Union. "What the recession shows is that people are just following the work. They're piecing together these careers now."
But the downside of short-term work is sizable: no medical, disability or retirement benefits, no paid time off, no guarantees of future employment.
As Helen Scully of Folsom's Scully Career Associates points out, freelancing doesn't provide a steady paycheck, and it's not predictable.
What's more, said Davis career counselor Andrea Weiss: "You can be an expert in your field, but if you're not excellent in marketing and knowing how to sell yourself, self-employment can be very difficult."
For skittish employers, temporary hiring provides an easy way to get work done without paying full-time salaries and benefits.
Yet David West of Seattle's Center for a Changing Workforce cautions that the Internal Revenue Service and the Labor Department are reviewing the increase in the use of independent contractors and may assess companies penalties if they've misclassified workers to keep from paying benefits.
For those who are out of work but have some financial resources, buying a franchise can be a way to start over.
Kim Tanner, 42, was laid off in November from a marketing coordinator job. Her husband, Sean, is currently employed but has survived two layoffs in the past four years. For the Davis couple, who had long discussed running their own business, the solution to the unstable employment picture was to purchase a Floor Coverings International franchise.
"Had it not been for the economic situation, I don't know that we would have taken that leap," said Tanner.
In Lincoln, 38-year-old Jennie Sorber received her last full-time paycheck in 2006. Now she's patching together bookkeeping and housecleaning jobs as well as starting a landscaping business. Mowing lawns and vacuuming floors isn't what she expected when she got her MBA.
"I love the fact that I can choose who I work for," she said. "But my big thing is job security. When I don't have that, it's really hard."
Where she sees uncertainty, Russell and his partners see opportunity.
"This may be the best time to start a business," he said. "You're starting at the bottom, and there's nowhere to go but up. If I don't do this, I got nothing. But if I do this, I may have something."