“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” — Studs Terkel
The late, great Studs Terkel, chronicler of history and American work lives, understood how jobs can inspire — or imprison. “Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits,” he said.
Thankfully, the days when a lifetime employee felt obligated to endure decades of soul-crushing work are over. Today’s professionals seeking life balance, meaningful work and fresh challenges have another option: consulting.
In fact, a recent Global Talent Trends study found that 78% of employees would consider working on a contract basis. They would be in good company, joining the growing ranks of smart, motivated and well-compensated professionals.
The exact number of U.S. contractors is hard to verify, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t focus on contingent or supplemental workers, as they are called. But a recent McKinsey & Co. report, “Independent Work: Choice, Necessity, and the Gig Economy,” did.
It found that anywhere from 20% to 30% of the working-age population work independently. Of about 8,000 workers surveyed across the U.S. and Europe, most reported that independent work gave them greater satisfaction with their work lives. That held true across countries, ages, income bracket and education levels.
As someone whose firm places consultants in organizations around the country, I find it gratifying to see conscientious professionals in finance, accounting and HR pushing themselves to create a more fulfilling career path. A path that means they won’t have to sacrifice their lives — and loves — to a job.
For many, it is a real turning point in their lives, and one they are eager to share. “Since working as a consultant, I feel I have more control over my life,” a finance consultant told us. Her newfound flexibility allowed her to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and later travel to Africa on safari.
Another consultant, formerly a public accountant, felt the transition presented her with a new world of professional development opportunities. She broadened her skill set and delighted in exposure to a variety of interesting companies and new industries. She now starts each day excited about her work.
Today’s tight labor market should reassure those worried about making the leap. In Minnesota, our low unemployment rate is about 3.4%. As a result, many employers are actively seeking outside resources to fill skill and capacity gaps.
That is especially true for organizations undergoing transitions themselves, from corporate reorganizations and role or departmental restructuring to piloting new technology systems or undertaking large projects.
For companies that are growing but not quite ready to build out their full-time workforce, hiring outside consultants with specialized expertise is a practical way to expand their staffs’ knowledge and bandwidth.
Of course, as important as personal fulfillment and work/life balance are, most of us have bills to pay. Compensation matters. And the good news is that consulting can be surprisingly lucrative.
According to 2019 research by Upwork, a global freelancing platform, 73% of full-time freelancers report higher wages than they earned while working for a traditional employer. Upwork’s 20 highest-paying skills earn from $90 to $255 an hour.
Even lower-priced freelancers on the platform earn at least $50 an hour, putting them in the top 10% of U.S. wage earners overall. And today, many placement companies, including ours, also offer benefits for consultants.
What does it take to be a successful consultant? Demonstrated expertise in your field is a must. It’s also helpful to be collaborative, flexible, self-directed and confident. And if you can answer “yes” to these four questions, that might clinch it.
1. Are you a problem-solver? Consultants have an opportunity to make a real impact, solving complex business challenges for clients. If you can embrace new models of leadership, collaborate broadly and tackle new challenges, you will finish each assignment knowing your work helped move the client’s business forward.
2. Do you enjoy being a subject-matter expert? As a consultant, you give the gift of knowledge and experience to clients. You help clients grow their businesses and develop employees around you.
3. Do you build relationships quickly? Consultants must quickly build trust and credibility within an organization. In turn, you will find that businesses often listen to and act on your recommendations because of your objective outside expertise.
4. Do you crave variety? If you are a lifelong learner, you will find consulting fulfilling because it exposes you to a variety of people, cultures and industries — from tech to education, medical, manufacturing or nonprofit.
Finally, consider what is most important to you. Ultimately, this choice has to reflect your life’s vision. Venturing into a new career as an expert — a solo practitioner — can be invigorating for consultants who have spent their past careers in a corporate setting. You will now have the freedom to choose your projects and tailor your schedule.
If your job is too small for your spirit, or if you would like to regain control of your career path, consider how consulting could help revive your professional zeal — and rebalance your life.
Often, the effect is nothing short of transformational.
Colleen Frankwitz is talent connection and development director at Salo, a finance, accounting & human resources staffing agency in Minneapolis and Chicago.
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