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Workers strive for independence in 'flex economy'

| Saturday, July 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Architect Maria Wilson, of Mt. Lebanon, in her home office on Monday, July 14, 2014.

About 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, Maria Wilson was relaxing at a North Shore restaurant, waiting to pick up her son, Owen, from day camp.

She had put in a day of work that started at 5 a.m., by her choice.

“The 9-to-5 thing — when you're really busy, it's great,” she said. “But there are lulls when there's nothing to do. I wanted a job where I can work really, really hard and play really, really hard.”

Wilson, 34, an architect from Mt. Lebanon, quit her day job at an architectural firm last year and went into business for herself. In doing so, she joined what some workforce experts say is an emerging trend as technological advances, demographic shifts and workers unemployed since the recession spur people to seek flexibility in their professions.

The number of “independent workers,” who include contractors, freelancers, consultants and solo entrepreneurs, grew more than 15 percent since 2011 to 17.7 million, according to a report last year by MBO Partners, a Virginia-based business services firm.

The proportion of company workforces that isn't full-time grew from about 10 percent before the recession to 30 percent, according to a business survey by Ardent Partners, a management research firm.

This is dubbed the “flex economy.”

Whether it is an actual trend depends on how you define this class of workers — whether part-time workers and freelancers are included. But experts generally agree that opportunities for flexible work arrangements are opening to those who want them, offering an alternative to traditional employment.

Work-life balance

Technology brought down the costs to start a business, giving individuals access to online resources at home that only large research firms could provide 20 years ago, said Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research who tracked the issue.

Those capabilities enabled more people over the past decade to establish flexible work arrangements. The Great Recession accelerated the trend, King said, as people were forced to strike out on their own, or became disillusioned with traditional employment amid the whittling of benefits and threats to job security.

“Traditional jobs have become less attractive overall,” King said. “A lot of it has to do with the competitive pressures, the recessions, fewer benefits, fewer retirement plans ... and, in particular, people are feeling stressed about having control over what they're doing, having the work-life balance.”

At the end of May, Ruth Wepfer left her job overseeing technology and innovation at Matthews International on the North Shore. Wepfer, who is in her 50s, felt that she had reached a critical moment in life. She enjoyed her work but wanted time to pursue her passion for competitive horseback riding while physically able.

Her husband and friends convinced her the time was right to start a consulting business.

“I started thinking about this last summer and started talking to several colleagues who had done this,” said Wepfer, of Export. “Most of them said, ‘Do it. Do it now. You'll love it. You'll be good at it.' ”

Still, she had trepidation. She would leave behind a steady paycheck, health benefits and workplace friends.

Risks, trade-offs

Indeed, flexibility and autonomy bring risks that workers must consider before taking a leap toward independence, said Chris Dwyer, research director for Ardent Partners: “There are things like health care that they have to worry about. They have to worry about paying their own taxes.”

Some experts speculated that the Affordable Care Act would spur a rise in part-time and independent workers because people no longer would need employers to provide health insurance.

Anecdotal evidence suggests Obamacare gave many people reason to leave full-time jobs, King said, though it is too early to say to what extent the law is driving the flex economy.

“We don't yet have the statistical data,” he said. “More people are telling us in interviews that Obamacare, with health benefits coming off the table, ‘I do have the ability to go out on my own.' ”

There could be economic trade-offs from an independent workforce. Ideally, it should result in more productivity, economists said. Workers would be in situations that makes the best use of their skills, and employers would have access to more part-time and contract workers, enabling them greater flexibility to staff their needs.

“In some cases, it could increase productivity for these firms, in the sense that they are using these workers only when they need to,” said Susan Houseman, a senior economist at W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Michigan. “It's kind of this just-in-time idea.”

That is an ideal, some experts say. There's no guarantee that a flexible workforce will lead to maximum productivity, nor is it necessarily good for workers. Many will find freelance or contract work that makes good use of their skills, but when times get tight, they may accept work simply because it pays.

“It's easy to tell these people to go get jobs. It's another thing to go get jobs,” King said. “It may be more productive for them to go work for Google, but you've got to eat.”

The luxury of time

Wepfer knows that it could be a while before she breaks even, but she is prepared for lean months. Friends and places such as the Pittsburgh Technology Council offered support as she gets started.

Wilson had the luxury of time, taking freelance design jobs while she worked; she built a pool of clients for several months before quitting her job. Her family had health insurance through her husband's employer.

Her income is not what it was before she left the architectural firm where she was a project manager, but she has no regrets. She takes jobs that interest her and works the hours she wants.

“Did I have to push myself beyond my comfort zone? Absolutely,” she said. “But I love the flexibility. I love going to work at 4 in the morning and taking my kid out for ice cream at 3 in the afternoon.”

Chris Fleisher is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or

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