When Rachna Kalra quit the publishing industry in 2017 after a decade-and-a-half of working with all the top publishers, it was a decision that was driven more out of a health scare than boredom with routine work. After taking a short break, Kalra bounced back to work, this time choosing projects she liked and executing them the way she wanted. “I entered publishing in 2004 and what I enjoyed most over the years was planning campaigns, working closely with authors, media, partners, etc. However, as the years went by and I grew in my role, I realised I was spending more time on strategy, budgets, team management and so on. While all these are critical to the running of a department/business, it wasn’t what I really enjoyed spending most of my time on or wanted to do for the rest of my work life. So after a year’s break, I decided consulting would work best for me,” says the 48-year-old Delhi resident.

Kalra is among the growing tribe of professionals who are slowly moving from mainstream work and opting for freelance projects. When KellyOCG, a global workforce solutions provider, came up with a survey in April of how the ‘gig economy’ (a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs) was thriving in the Asia-Pacific region, it showed that a large percentage (84%) of talent managers hire or use gig workers—this is the highest in the world (the global average stands at 65%).

It’s no wonder then that the gig economy is growing in India. The young workforce is keen on working on smaller projects or working for several companies at once rather than being tied to one firm. Gig work, also known as free agency, is any type of work in which talent is paid for a discreet task, project or for a certain period of time. This includes diversified workers with many sources of incomes, contract workers, freelancers, small business owners, temporary workers and moonlighters.

The government, too, has engaged gig workers in the past for its flagship projects like Digital India, Swachh Bharat and Smart Cities. “The gig economy is a shared on-demand model, wherein freelancers or free agents take up gigs. These freelancers may take up different gigs at the same point of time or in addition to their conventional job,” says Francis Padamadan, senior director, Asia-Pacific, Recruitment Process Outsourcing and Business Process Services, KellyOCG.

Its survey results show that in terms of skillset, information technology (41%), marketing (23%) and design (21% ) are leading the way when it comes to the percentage of global talent managers hiring gig workers. As per Truelancer (a platform with two lakh registered freelancers), data, content writing, software development, digital marketing and graphic design are the most lucrative areas. According to an estimate by Truelancer, India had close to 15 million freelancers in 2015, next only to the US (53 million). The figures, released in 2016, showed that 65% of Truelancer users were Indians, with the majority of them belonging to areas as diverse as IT, mobile app development, designing and content writing.

Changing landscape

In India, the gig economy has picked up pace over the past three-four years. In 2016, consulting firm PwC launched Talent Exchange, a first-of-its-kind marketplace that connects independent talent with short-term work opportunities at the firm. Professional services firm Ernst & Young, too, has a database of a few hundred freelancers whom they hire regularly for various projects. Several IT firms like TCS, Infosys and Microland also regularly hire independent consultants at all levels for multiple projects.

It’s a trend that has been fuelled by internet startups, as the shared economy model of the gig economy helps startups save hiring costs such as paying employee benefits. “A majority of talent managers are leveraging gig workers in their teams and departments to drive efficiency, innovation and competitive advantage,” says Padamadan of KellyOCG.

Freelancing, till now, was thought of as a refuge for only those who weren’t able to find full-time jobs or needed flexible working hours. But that doesn’t hold true any more. What, till a few years back, wasn’t the first go-to option for many is fast becoming a sought-after employment choice. And there are several reasons behind it. Downsizing by companies is one of them. Take the case of Faizal Khan. The 55-year-old journalist from Delhi started freelancing eight years back when he was out of a job. Soon, he started liking the freedom that small projects offered him. The ability to say ‘no’ to assignments and take vacations as per his choice was a boon after three decades of regular employment. “I am my own organisation and it allows me flexibility in functioning. I might have earned more if I was working full time, but I love the way I do things now,” says Khan, who has refused a few job offers that came his way in the past few years.

As per the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a business and economic database and research company, there are currently 31 million unemployed Indians looking for a job. In such a scenario, gigs offer flexibility to employees, as well as employers. “Candidates will pick up gigs in India increasingly over the next few years not just due to unemployment, but also due to the accompanying benefits,” says Padamadan.

Freelancers also have greater autonomy over how, when and where to work. “Our research shows that seven out of 10 talent managers using freelancers see the employer-worker relationship shifting, with talent asserting more leverage,” says Padamadan of KellyOCG.

The gig economy is also aided by the skill supply gap. Employers often rue that there aren’t enough skilled workers and those looking for employment can’t find jobs. For a full-time role, however, employers need a bouquet of skills. “They also need to factor in the cost of hiring and return-on-investment in the long term. Further, some talent requirements that were not part of the hiring projections may crop up based on exigent or client project work. In such a scenario, hiring a gig worker on a short-term basis for a project or fixed term not only provides better return on investment, but also agility and scalability,” says Padamadan.

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The downside

The biggest disadvantage, though, remains in not having a fixed source of income. “The finances are always in a disarray. Payments get delayed and there is no guarantee that I will get work next month. So paying bills is a constant struggle,” says Delhi-based freelancer Khan. Plus, even if the remuneration is more than what a full-time employee will get for the same amount of work, it mostly “arrives late”. Working from home, says Khan, can also be “isolating” and you need to have “good contacts” to get continuous projects.

“As a freelancer, you have no interaction with the management, staff or other employees. Your workload and income may vary from month to month and can be difficult to predict, particularly in the early stages of your business,”

Despite these drawbacks, however, industry experts maintain that the gig economy is here to stay. “The reason is simple,” says Padamadan of KellyOCG, adding, “Organisations get hard-to-find, as well as easily-available skills on an on-demand basis. Around 65% of hiring managers say the gig economy is rapidly becoming the new normal for how businesses organise work across the globe.”

The freelance army: Why many Indians are choosing part-time over full-time

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