Employers cannot see freelancers as the ‘always on’ source of talent and skill that can be picked up and put down at will, says Jane Ide.
Make a job, not take a job. Over the last decade of growth, this has been the advice to young people wishing to start a career in the creative industries. In many respects, it has well-served both the self-employed and the industry that relies upon them. But as we look to rebuild after the pressures of the pandemic, will freelancers be the beneficiaries of change, or left wanting as the sector overlooks such a vital part of its workforce?
The creative industries thrive on innovation and versatility. Many innovative creative professionals start with freelance or portfolio work, and for young people who aspire to careers in the cultural industries, the best route for them has often been to become their own boss.
This is common to the industry – 38% of our workforce is self-employed – but the ecosystem has been badly affected by the pandemic. Many operations had no choice but to shut down and, while permanent staff could be put on furlough, freelancers were simply left out of work. We warned last year that the industry needed to look after its freelancers, or risk having this mobile, versatile and experienced workforce migrate to another sector. Research from the Office of National Statistics showed that by June 2020, across all sectors, there were 11,000 fewer self-employed than a year earlier (the numbers of employed people was largely unchanged).
Growth in opportunities for freelancers?
A year on it is possible that the period of rebuilding we are edging into may benefit freelancers. With recovery still to take hold, it’s foreseeable that many organisations will be unwilling or unable to create permeant positions. This could lead to a growth in opportunities for freelancers.
But the pandemic has, as in so many other areas of our society, exposed clearly some fundamental flaws in the culture of our industry. Freelance work is designed to bring in expertise and energy at the time it is needed, to provide a contract of services and meet a specific operational need. Used well, it can bring huge benefits in the cross-pollination of ideas from people working across a range of projects or organisations, it is effective use of limited resources to deliver specific pieces of work that don’t have a permanent shelf life. For the freelancers themselves it provides an autonomy and flexibility that those in paid employment can only envy.
But the last year has shown us that it is also highly risky for those individuals who are left without protection and support at a time of crisis, and in the longer term equally risky for the industry that relies so heavily on them. We are already hearing that the hospitality industry, another sector that relies on non-permanent staff for much of its operations, is starting to struggle to attract back the talent it needs, particularly at more experienced levels, because the freelancers they previously relied upon had to go elsewhere to pay their bills.
Is the culture of freelancing due to habit?
We have yet to see whether our own industry will face the same challenges; whether all those talented, experienced freelancers will return as the opportunities start to open up, or whether some of them have found alternative, more secure roles in other sectors.
Which perhaps should give food for thought to anyone in our sector that employs – and relies on – freelance support. It may be traditional, but should the culture of freelancing always be at the heart of our employment practices? Is it even always appropriate?
One of the concerns we have at CCSkills is that sometimes – not always, but certainly sometimes – describing a role as freelance may be more due to habit or culture as it is to having thought through what the role actually requires.
In the right context freelance work is a brilliant win/win situation for all concerned. In the wrong context it becomes a way for employers to avoid the responsibilities (and the hassle) of employing staff - recruitment processes, HR management, and of course paying holiday and sick pay - and leaves the person bringing their labour and their talent into the organisation vulnerable to unfair working practices.
Self-employed people, by definition, have fewer rights and responsibilities to an organisation, and should not be called upon to provide the essential services of a permanent member of staff. This is particularly important regarding young freelancers, who may be unaware of these distinctions or feel unable to question a source of income and opportunity so early in their careers.
Equally, employers cannot see freelancers as the ‘always on’ source of talent and skill that can picked up and put down at will. Our industry may find in coming months that it will want to think differently in the future about how to employ, retain and support staff if it is to ensure that in future that resource is readily available when needed.
Building back fairer
What matters most is that employers use the right tool for the job (metaphorically as well as literally). If a freelance contract is what is needed, then use freelance talent and use it well. If the conditions of the way you need and expect someone to work define that work as employment, then bite the bullet and do it right.
This is what we mean when we say we want to help the industry build back fairer. There will be growth and new opportunities for the future workforce, many of whom will be entering the sector for the first time after an incredibly bumpy start. But we need to support each other not to fall into bad recruitment habits that will exploit self-employed workers on the basis of long sector tradition rather than using the full range of work arrangements available to us, properly and as relevant to the work required.
At Creative & Cultural Skills, we are currently delivering training sessions for organisations to better work with self-employed practitioners, and support the work of Artistic Mutiny UK and the Creative Industry Federation’s Freelance Champions in looking to drive systemic change in the way freelance support is used within our industry. The future of freelancing in our sector is also something we discuss in the latest episode of our new podcast series. This is a change of mindset and behaviour that is within our power to make, and with open conversations and collective action, we can make this sector a fairer – and more resilient - one.
This article, sponsored and contributed by Creative & Cultural Skills, is part of a series promoting apprenticeships and challenging entrenched social inequalities, to create a more diverse workforce