Two years into his new career writing code for phone apps, Leo Landau works for companies as far away as Australia while never leaving his apartment in Eugene, Ore. By year’s end he expects to earn $10,000 more than inspecting buildings for asbestos, a job he lost in 2008.
“I’m working from home, setting my own schedule and making decent money,” Landau said. He doesn’t plan on moving to California’s Silicon Valley even if he could land higher-paying work there. For now, the self-taught programmer, 31, says he enjoys cobbling together an income via Elance, a website where companies and short-term contractors pair up.
Digital freelancers such as Landau represent a growing portion of American workers. An Accenture Plc study included estimates of 20 percent of the U.S. workforce while the Freelancers Union, a New York-based advocacy group, puts the number at 42 million.
Some of these independents are attracted to the flexible lifestyle, others because they can’t get a job locally that matches their skills. They are replacing traditional work - being employed by a company - with a mix of projects completed over the Internet.
The recession that ended in June 2009 helped boost freelancing as a way for the newly unemployed to support themselves, and the practice has gained traction since. Internet exchanges allow companies to reduce labor costs by enlisting freelancers, who give up a reliable salary for discretion over how they work.
“All major recessions change the lens on how we approach work,” said Andrew Liakopoulos, a principal in Chicago at Deloitte Consulting LLP and co-author of a report this year called “The Open Talent Economy.” People “don’t necessarily have to be fully employed, with a number and a badge.”
Behind this shift, Liakopoulos said, is the technological ability for companies to divide their needs into projects and farm them out to a talent pool regardless of geography. As companies move toward accessing labor, rather than acquiring it, they’ll be able to respond more nimbly to macroeconomic shocks, he said.