Archive for the 'freelance' Category

Job obsolescence and career change

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There have been plenty of discussions about job obsolescence in recent years. Whether it’s manufacturing, journalism, or the one closest to me, photography, workers in many industries have felt the impact. Of course I don’t think those professions are like the ones in this article on obsolete jobs, but certainly they have been heavily impacted by globalization and/or technological innovations and changes. There have also been plenty of stories of mid-life career changes whether by choice, or otherwise. In Michigan the focus has been on auto workers. And the stories have ranged from workers opening their own businesses, to retraining for the health care industry, to sadly, doing nothing. Fear and anger have been common themes in Michigan for some time now. While I am glad I’m not right out of college, or just trying to hang on until retirement (yeah, like that’ll ever happen for me…), I have experienced both job loss, and mid-life career change. Of course it is frightening to face an unknown future, while figuring out how to make a decent living. But I know it can be done. I’ve been there. I have never worked in the auto industry. No I was payed much, much less, for the majority of my career. But, nonetheless, this is my story of job obsolescence and career transformation.

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In between our country’s two most recent economic downturns, I managed to fulfill one of my goals; that of being a full time photographer. Like so many others, I had managed to make it all the way through college without any idea of what I’d like to do with my life. When I was younger, I had, at different times, wanted to be everything from a professional hockey player to an artist. All of them were very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to achieve. Unfortunately, I never had the desire to be an engineer, a doctor, or an accountant (though I’ve worked in two of the three fields (though, not the one that requires eight years of post graduate schooling and training). But finally, after jobs in sales, accounting, credit and collections, and working in various retail jobs, I began assisting a commercial photographer. Eventually I became the studio manager. At the same time, I began to build up my own business,  and after several years, I finally managed to get enough work to actually call myself a photographer…just in time for the industry to tank.

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I am no longer a full-time, professional, photographer. I still make money from it, but it no longer makes up the majority of my income. I know photographers who are barely hanging on, refusing to give up. I also know of other photographers, who like myself, didn’t find the struggle worth it, and have moved on. It’s not easy to give up on a dream, and it’s harder still to move on to a new career if you don’t have the skills, confidence, or necessary experience. This is, of course, not limited to photography. It may not have been anyone’s dream to work on an automotive assembly line (or it may have been…who am I to say?), but for many it’s been a difficult transition to move from a $40/hr (or more) job, with great benefits, to one that requires potentially more training, and at the same time pays less, and has, often times, much worse benefits. In my case I wasn’t giving up much in either the pay column, or the in the traditional benefits column. What I had to give up was much more valuable to me: freedom and creativity. I mourn the loss, but I’m not bitter or angry. It is what it is.

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You can find plenty of bitterness and resentment (just go to a job site forum)  relating to job obsolescence, but there is no stopping change. It’s not difficult to find anger expressed these days relating to a fear of possible, or pending, obsolescence. I visited photography business forums for years, and constantly saw, and experienced, the anger of more established (older) photographers who, at one point in their career were making really good money. Usually the anger came out during discussions regarding pricing of photographic services. Newer photographers often find themselves in a desperate situation. They often have little to no experience, no work, and if they went to art school, huge amounts of debt. The older photographers would admonish the desperate young photographers for charging too little, thereby dragging pay down for the entire industry. Due to lowered barriers to entry, and various romantic notions of photographers, there was an ever increasing number of photographers looking for work. skyline_pano_4.jpg Meanwhile, the industries that pay photographers, namely advertising, editorial (magazines and newspapers), and publishing, were in increasingly worse shape. The decline of manufacturing in this country not only put a lot of laborers out on the street, but ad execs, editors, and of course, photographers as well. I was fortunate enough to recognize the writing on the wall early. Even before I made a living from photography, I saw the annual revenues of the commercial studio I managed decline dramatically each year beginning in the late 90’s. I managed to make it because I cut overhead to a bare minimum. I owned almost no equipment (except cameras and computers), had no studio (other than my basement), and figured out this internet thing pretty early. I got a site online early, bought some Google AdWords, and soon after had full time work. Of course, eventually everyone else figured it out too. And to make matters worse, as the really good paying gigs dried up, everyone began to compete for the few remaining jobs. It didn’t take long before I was competing against huge studios for small time work.

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I once heard that in business, if you believe the industry in which you operate is growing, you should reinvest profits in your business, and if you believe the industry is contracting you should bank all profits. I did the latter almost from the beginning. I also decided that I needed more transportable, and more importantly, more in demand skills. It’s not that you can’t take photography with you, but photography is a business that takes time to build up. Photography, for all but the really big names, is regional, and building a business in a new location takes time. Since the web seemed to be a growth industry, and I enjoyed design, I decided web design would be my next career. Because of an extremely low overhead, savings, and the new skills I was learning, I felt confident that I would be fine. My new career ended up not being web design, but rather web development in general, and user interface engineering specifically. 09242007_0130.jpg It took years. It wasn’t easy. And it often left me with little to no free time. But it’s been worth it. And of course I still do photography, only now I only do what I want. In fact, I’m probably much more well known for my personal projects than I ever was for my commercial work. It’s much more satisfying, though it doesn’t pay much of the bills anymore. Of course, if the industry ever turns around I’ll be ready. Though, who knows, maybe I’ll be on to something different by then.

Freelance Nation

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I recently got to thinking about freelancing, why I and others do it, and what it means for cities like Detroit. An article on Business Week’s website titled, Beware the Freelance Economy, discusses a recent trend in this country in which the share of business with no employees (freelance) has increased relative to traditional employee businesses. The author contends that freelance businesses do not increase employment, nor create wealth. Furthermore the author believes that, “…people would be more productive in this part-time work if they did it as employees who were part of a bigger organization that could achieve scale economies…” He finishes up with a bit of a warning, and a general question as to why this trend is occurring.

Having been a full time freelancer, or self-employed individual as I liked to call it, for almost five years, and now a part time freelancer, I feel like responding to some of the points made in the article. I also think I have a pretty good answer for why this trend, that the author finds so troubling, is occurring. Being a fairly typical Gen Xer, I saw the Boomer Generation as missing out on so many important parts of life. I lacked direction, and questioned everything. The answer, “because that’s life…” or whatever, didn’t quite cut it for me. I saw a lot of, unnecessary in my mind, stress, and anger in the generation ahead of me as they strove for middle and upper management positions at large corporations that ultimately failed to offer the promised stability or loyalty that their employees seemed to give them.

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This appeared to be the American Dream. Work 60 plus hours at a company that saw you as disposable, so you could own a couple of cars and a house in the suburbs. Along with that came dedicating your life to a corporate entity that often became more important than family, hours waiting in rush hour traffic, and generally mind numbing and unrewarding work. Like so many others though, as much as I despised the large corporate workplace, I found the need to make a decent living, have health insurance, and a desire to save some money for later in life. Working in bike shops, and the like wasn’t cutting it. After college graduation I bounced between “real” jobs like accounting, and fun jobs like working in bike shops. The real jobs left me feeling unfulfilled. I worked hard at them, and was often recognized by my employers as a top employee, yet they did little for my soul. Working in the bike shop, on the other hand, allowed me to introduce people to an activity that could become a meaningful part of their lives. Often times the relationship between customers and employees turned into long term friendships in ways they rarely did in my “real” jobs.

During the almost five years of self-employment, I experienced unprecedented self motivation, and dedication to my work. Ownership, it turned out, was very important to me, as was actually being interested in what I did all day…every day. Furthermore the feeling of control, and the escape of the high school mentality of my “real” jobs, where employers cared more about when I came and went and less about what I actually accomplished, was rather nice. Self employment comes with it’s own set of headaches, but what job or career doesn’t?

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Now, almost everyone I know is self-employed or a part time freelancer. We all do multiple things with our lives. Dedication to the big corporation isn’t as appealing, doesn’t seem to offer what it used to, and certainly isn’t the end all, be all of most people’s lives. Personal growth and satisfaction seem to be as important as money these days. And while a part time job at Starbucks may (this is arguable) contribute more to wealth and job creation than freelancing, it may not contribute more to self-fulfillment and personal growth. While the author, Scott Shane, may be a professor of entrepreneurial studies, most freelancers couldn’t care less about the National implications of their side businesses. They do it because they want to. They do it because they need to. And this is as it should be. As a country we should embrace this. If someone feels motivated enough to do work on the side, it should be encouraged. My freelancing earns me more money to me than a second job would, and employs me just as much. The additional money earned is put back into the economy when I go out to eat, go on vacation, or by a new bicycle. It’s money that wouldn’t have been spent with out the side work. And more importantly it’s fed my need for personally satisfying work, and has led to other career opportunities that I would not have had otherwise.

Finally, what does freelancing mean to cities like Detroit? And why should cities like Detroit embrace freelancing and self-employment? While most freelance work may never lead directly to larger, job producing companies, some will. Connections will be made, networks will grow, and the area can benefit directly from them. Portland, Oregon, is an example of a city that has, for many years, attracted freelancers, and many companies have been started by the self-employed joining together. Detroit currently has a low cost of living, allowing for freelancers to keep a low overhead while building their business. Most will never amount to more than that, but even if a few do, it will contribute to health of the economy and the reputation of the area. A good reputation for entrepreneurship, self-employment, and creativity will attract more of the same. The alternative is always relying on someone else to provide for employment opportunities. And as it stands right now, nobody seems to be stepping in to fill that need.