For all the good things engineers can get from working in the gig economy, there are also some significant issues that will affect whether your lifestyle and personality will be suitable for freelance work.
Lack of Benefits and Employment Protections
This is one of the most significant arguments that arises against pursuing gig work, especially trying to freelance full-time. For many, the need for benefits—particularly medical coverage—is not an optional consideration when they are deciding on a job or career path.
The Freelancing in America 2017 report noted that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in the U.S. went a long way toward making freelancing a more viable option in this respect. However, the majority of freelancers surveyed (70 percent) still indicated that they would rather take home more pay and then purchase benefits on their own, rather than receive benefits from an employer or client.
The caveat here is that while a prolific freelancer may be able to earn enough to offset the lack of benefits and maintain a savings account to cover unexpected expenses, it’s easy for anything above the most routine of medical expenses to quickly outstrip any freelancer’s ability to earn enough to cover these costs. Furthermore, if your earning potential is compromised, whether you’re sick or you have to devote time to care for a family member who is ill—the problem can snowball.
Currently, there are few protections for those dubbed “contract hires,” meaning there is little recourse for freelancers if projects end prematurely, clients delay or refuse to pay, or contracts are terminated without notice. While there is some movement in the direction of better protections for gig, freelance and contract workers, substantial support is still quite some distance away.
Social Isolation and Difficulty in Growing Your Network
Another downside to freelancing as a primary or full-time method of employment, especially when done entirely over the computer, is the potential to be very isolating. It’s possible to become unmotivated or uninspired without the structure and social interaction that comes from a traditional lab, office or jobsite environment. On the career side, being isolated from other professionals in your field can make it harder to grow your professional network—and this network is crucial for a freelancer, as word of mouth and referrals are often the source of new projects.
There are solutions, of course, including working outside your home at a library, shared office space or café, and joining online or in-person groups and organizations related to your engineering field and industry. Becoming a member of the local chapter of your professional organization, such as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) or American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and attending conferences and tradeshows to network is essential to get your name out to the right people.
But these solutions require effort on the part of the freelancer, so it’s important to remember both the potential effects of working in isolation, and the time needed to offset these effects.
Motivation and Promotion are All on You
Along with the freedom to choose your projects and structure your schedule however you want, come issues of self-motivation and self-promotion. It can be easy to fall into habits of procrastination when working freelance, resulting in missed deadlines, or not picking up the next contract as quickly as your should, leading to unpaid and unproductive downtime.
As an independent worker, there isn’t an external structure to push you forward or prop you up—it’s all on you to set deadlines and stick to them, to follow up with clients promptly and to always be on the hunt for your next gig or contract.
The same applies to promoting yourself and your work. At a traditional company, there will often be a marketing department to do promotion of the company, and by extension you and the work you do in your job. As a freelancer, no one else is going to do this for you—it’s your job to network, to polish your personal brand and market yourself with each new potential customer you meet and job you bid for.
All of this takes time and effort, meaning it’s a significant factor to take into account when you’re deciding on a freelance career.