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Growing trend toward freelance work well for some, but it comes with pitfalls

TORONTO - When Lise Cartwright grew tired of a string of full-time office jobs, she turned to the Internet to see if there were any writing gigs she could try on the side.

She started dabbling in some side projects, and within 18 months, she'd quit her job and founded her own freelance company.

"I love being able to work from home, set my hours. It's just having the ability to set a schedule, and if something happens and you need to change something you can just move stuff around," said Cartwright, who works as writer and coaches others freelancers through her website, www.outsourcedfreelancingsuccess.com.

"Yes, I have clients, but they're not micro-managing me. They hand you the work and they just leave you to it."

It may not be a set-up that works for all industries, but as more people seek flexibility at work and try to juggle the demands of family life and expense of child care, she said, they are choosing to be their own boss.

Cartwright is part of a growing trend of self-employed and contract workers which, according to some US figures, make up nearly 15 per cent of the workforce and is expected to climb to nearly 20 per cent by 2020.

In Canada, the latest data from Statistics Canada shows that self-employment rose by 23,400 in June as the unemployment rate rose to 7.1 per cent in June. Figures also show that in 2009, 1.8 million Canadians worked in some type of temporary job, which accounted for 12.5 per cent of paid employment, with contract positions accounting for just over one-half of temporary jobs and professionals making up a large proportion of contract employees.

But while the web and social media have made it easier to establish a business and market your services, the trend toward a freelance economy doesn't come without a downside.

While people like Cartwright chose the freedom that comes with a freelance lifestyle, the broader trend stems from a push by companies themselves, said Ann Frost, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the Ivey Business School with Western University.

"It's companies that have decided, 'we would prefer to pick and choose when we'd like to pay people for certain services, and we're not going to have them on as full-time employees on a regular basis,'" she said.

"The result of that is this growing class of freelance employees but that's probably not most of their own choice to be in that position."

It also does little to help the growing income gap or the overall economy, as people working several freelance jobs lack the purchasing power they may have had in more stable positions that disappeared during the recession, she said.

"People are much more insecure, (there's) a lack of benefits, lack of pension, lack of being able to save," Frost said.

"(It's) basically living contract to contract."

For Cartwright, freelancing meant initially earning about half of what she made in her full-time job, but within six months, she had replaced her full-time income.

She says most full-time freelancers would start in a range of about $30,000 to $40,000, but it's really up to each person to determine their own rates. If their skills are in demand, they can charge higher.

"It is common to be making less initially and then to jump up significantly within six to 13 months," Cartwright said.

Steve Cunningham, CEO of Polar Unlimited, a digital marketing company and Readitfor.me, an e-learning start-up that summarizes business books, hires freelancers in addition to his regular staff when a project demands it.

He says they are crucial to small businesses and in high demand.

"Having a freelancer available allows you to juggle those ups and downs that naturally happen in a small business in a way that doesn't require you to keep a full-time staff member and carry that cost on a full-time basis," he said.

"Projects do come along where (some aspects) may lie somewhere outside of your core expertise. The advantage of having freelancers who have different skill sets (is that it also) allows you to take on those projects."

Joe Issid, a contributor with job site Monster.ca who has had his own publishing company and is now an executive at another, notes contract work can also be useful for millennials who can't find a full-time job in their field.

Freelance work can allow them to get real world experience and earn some money until they land a full-time job, he said, although relying solely on that type of employment can also mean there's a lack of corporate identity - for the company as well as for the freelancers themselves.

"They may run the risk of getting lost in that world for a really long period of time and really not establish any real roots," said Issid.

"If your entire career is based on working the freelance model you may lose the sense of community, the sense of belonging to something," he said.

Follow @maurinor on Twitter.

The Canadian Press

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