Career Development of Free Agent Workers. ERIC
by Imel, Susan
A number of factors have converged to create a new type of worker known
as free agent. Downsizing by corporations during the 1980s and early 1990s
signaled the end of an era where loyalty to an organization or corporation
paid off in a lifetime guarantee of employment. Technology has created
opportunities for work to be done differently, including virtually. The
transition to the knowledge-based economy has generated a demand for workers
with certain types of skills; workers possessing such skills are in short
supply now and in the foreseeable future. These factors have served as
a catalyst for the emergence of workers who consider themselves free agents.
Like professional athletes or actors, free agent workers do not usually
attach themselves permanently to a specific company or organization, but
tend to go where their skills and talents are in demand (Conlin 2000; Leonhardt
2000; Packer 2000). Because free agent workers do not usually have long-term
attachments to one organization, their needs for career development must
be met in nontraditional ways. This Digest examines the career development
of free agent workers. It begins by defining free agent workers and then
looks at the congruence between the rise of free agent workers and changing
ideas about careers and career development. A concluding section identifies
strategies that free agent workers are using to meet their career development
FREE AGENT WORKERS
Who are free agent workers? According to Arnold Packer, "Free agents,
usually young people, don't expect (or want) a lifetime career with a single
employer. They have taken responsibility for charting and preparing their
own professional futures. In that group, changing jobs is commonplace"
(Packer 2000, p. 41). Being a free agent worker is as much a matter of
mindset as of mobility. Free agent workers think of themselves as having
talent to sell and they shop it around for the best offer, but money alone
does not ensure their loyalty or interest (Smith et al. 2000).
How many free agent workers are there? Estimates of the number of free
agent workers range from a high of 25 million (Pink 1997) to a low of 12.9
million (Leonhardt 2000), but these estimates include different categories
of workers. The 12.9 million figure is based on 1999 Bureau of Labor Statistics
data on the number of self-employed individuals outside of agriculture;
this number actually declined by 1 million between 1994 and 1999. Pink's
estimate of 25 million was calculated by adding self-employed (14 million),
independent contractors (8.3 million), and individuals working through
temporary agencies (2.3 million). Pink refers to this combined group as
the "free agent nation." Not all of the individuals included in Pink's
estimate would fit the definition of free agent workers, however, because
many have not voluntarily chosen to work in these categories. For the most
part, free agent workers are well educated and possess high levels of skills
that are in demand (Leonhardt 2000; Packer 2000); they have chosen a free
agent lifestyle because it frees them from organizational politics, provides
them opportunities to learn, gives them more control of their time, and
provides 30% to 200% more income than their counterparts in traditional
jobs earn (Conlin 2000).
The following examples demonstrate that free agent workers vary widely
in how they approach their careers:
* Andy Abramson, a 40-year-old sports marketing consultant, estimates
he makes 75% more as a free agent than he would in a traditional marketing
position. He finds that the constant flow of new projects keeps work interesting;
furthermore, he has equity stakes in a variety of companies for which he
does projects. In addition to the higher income, perks include a month
in Europe each year (Conlin 2000).
* Rich Preziotti represents an example of how one can be a free agent
without changing companies. After graduating from business school in 1991,
he began work at Honeywell as a financial analyst. Nine years and seven
jobs later, he is a vice president and general manager of a $450 million
per year speciality wax division. He says that he has learned by being
challenged and figuring out what to do, not necessarily by knowing in advance
how to get the job done. He appreciates the career development he has received
at Honeywell but does not want to be called a company man. "The employer-employee
contract that used to exist 25 years ago doesn't exist today. It's too
competitive a work environment," he says (Smith et al. 2000, online, n.p.).
* Edie Schillings is a free agent in training. A 56-year old registered
nurse, Schillings is looking for ways to be challenged intellectually as
well as increase her skills so she is studying online to become a legal
nurse consultant. After completing the 12- to 18-month course and passing
a board exam, she will be able to work for lawyers on product liability
or medical malpractice cases or for insurance companies evaluating medical
risk. As a legal nurse consultant, Schillings expects to double her income
and have a more flexible work schedule (Smith et al. 2000).
The three individuals profiled here exemplify many of the characteristics
of free agent workers. All have taken charge of their careers and interesting
work is a priority. Also, increasing their skills has been an important
part of their strategy. If training was not provided, they acquired skills
on their own (ibid.).
CHANGING CONCEPTIONS ABOUT CAREERS
The model of the free agent worker has emerged during a period when
conceptions about careers and career patterns have been changing. The career
development literature, for example, contains discussions of the boundary-less
career, one that is characterized by independence from rather than dependence
on traditional organizational career arrangements (Arthur and Rousseau
1996). "The typical boundaryless career is characterized by a career identity
that is independent of the employer (e.g., 'I'm a software engineer');
the accumulation of employment-flexible know-how (e.g., how to work in
an innovative, efficient, and/or quality-enhancing way); and the development
of networks that are independent of the firm (e.g., occupation or industry
based), non-hierarchic (e.g., communities of practice), and worker enacted"
(DeFillippi and Arthur 1996, pp. 123-24).
A relational approach to careers is another recent concept in the career
development literature (Hall 1996). In describing the relational career,
Hall speaks of the external and the internal career. Previously, the external
career--the actual jobs or positions an individual held--was more important.
Today, the internal career, which is the individual's perceptions and self-constructions
of career events, is of greater consequence. In the relational view, career
development is seen as a mutual process, a process of co-learning. The
objective of career development is not mastery and independence but rather
interdependence. The relational aspects of work environments can have a
powerful influence on career development because they provide opportunities
for interaction, the development of competence, and a more confident self-identity.
The emergence of free agent workers can be seen as a natural outgrowth
of changing concepts about careers and career development. Stroh and Reilly
(1997) used the term free agents to describe mangers who began systematically
to manage their own careers by changing companies. Their research found
that managers who followed a free agent career model fared better than
those who did not. Free agent workers have boundaryless careers; their
career identity is independent of an employer and it is their know-how
that allows them to function as free agents. Networks are also important
to free agent workers. These networks allow free agent workers to take
a relational approach to career development.
CAREER DEVELOPMENT STRATEGIES
Since free agents workers have nontraditional careers, they do not have
access to traditional career development opportunities that are available
to workers who follow more traditional career paths. That does not mean,
however, that free agent workers do not continue to develop their careers.
Two career development strategies in which free agent workers engage are
learning and networking.
The skills and knowledge that free agent workers possess are what makes
them valuable and they engage in learning on a regular basis to keep up
to date. Knowing how to learn and adapt are skills that most of them possess
(Packer 2000). Free agent workers find that, in many situations, the ability
to acquire the required skill rapidly may be just as essential as having
a specific expertise: mastering "hot new technology in a snap is a hot
skill--not knowing last year's hot new software" (Smith et al. 2000, online,
The term free agent learning has been coined to describe the type of
learning in which free agent workers engage. Free agent learning is voluntary,
self-directed and, for free agent learners, its focus is primarily on new
jobs. Free agent workers engage in self-directed learning that is career
specific so that they can develop competencies that promote their employability
and career success (Packer 2000). "With their focus on employability through
growth and learning, free agents are essentially free agent learners-independent,
highly motivated adults who take responsibility for their own learning
and development, use their spare time to learn, use new approaches in learning,
and self-teach using a variety of resources" (Short and Opengart 2000,
The development of networks is another career development strategy used
by free agent workers. In fact, lack of contact with professional colleagues
is one of the major downsides to free agent work, and some have left self-employment
to escape the isolation that accompanies it (Leonhardt 2000). To fulfill
the need for contact with others, free agent workers are developing networks.
The networks, many of which are small groups, are used by free agents to
succeed professionally and survive professionally (Pink 1997).
The networks may be virtual (e.g., www.freeagentnation.com/, freeagent.com/Myhome.asp,
www.guru.com/, www.fastcompany. com/career/) or take more traditional forms.
Some free agent workers use regular conference telephone calls or meetings
to solicit and receive advice, set goals, give advice, and provide emotional
support (Pink 1997).
Several women in Skokie, Illinois, for example, have formed the Strategy
Group that meets monthly in a living room. At their meetings, each participant
is allowed a maximum of 20 minutes to speak, with the time divided into
four periods: accomplishments, struggles and dilemmas, interactive session,
and making commitments for the next month (ibid.).
These networks help free agent workers take a relational approach to
their career development and continue to develop their careers through
repeated exchanges with others in significant ways (Hall 1996).
Free agent workers provide evidence of how work and the workplace are
changing. Certainly not all workers will become free agents, but their
emergence is a sign that the line between regular employment and self-employment
is blurring (Leonhardt 2000). As more workers assume the characteristics
associated with free agents (e.g., frequent job changes, self-direction
of career), career development strategies will need to change and expand
to meet these needs.
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