Work is changing. Sometimes subtly. Sometimes in far more fundamental ways, as evidenced by zero hour contracts, ongoing redundancies and a general move away from the rigidities of the traditional labour market and towards ever-greater flexibility.
One trend in all of this that has gone relatively unobserved is the rise of the iPro, or Independent Professional – those with high-level technical skills who are self-employed, though not employing others.
It’s a category which many who work in the technology sector are falling into, and as such they are part of a rapidly growing tribe. So much so that a recent study by the IPAG Business School in France – Future Working: The Rise of Europe’s Independent Professionals – found that iPros were the fastest growing category of workers in the European labour market.
This year saw their numbers rise to nearly 9 million, 42% up on the 6.2 million in 2004. In Britain, the rate of growth has been even greater, at some 63%.
The Netherlands, Poland and France have all experienced the iPro phenomenon, while in Spain and Greece it has provided at least some counterbalancing force against the trend towards mass unemployment that both countries have experienced.
In the past, this group of independent professionals might have been bundled under the overarching banner of ‘freelancer’. However, attempting to pigeonhole iPros into traditional employment categories, warns the ‘Future Working’ report, is to fail to recognise the impact iPros can have on work creation. In other words, by helping their client businesses cut costs and become more efficient, iPros have a deeper role to play than just creating a job for themselves … and this shouldn’t go unrecognised.
With 25% of those currently engaged in professional, scientific and technical work already regarded as iPros – more than the 20% or so involved in the arts and entertainment – it’s evident that these ‘New Entrepreneurs’, as I would call them, are already an important component of our modern economy.
This is likely to be the case even more so as highly skilled workers continue to be shed by large companies and the public sector through redundancy, or choose to leave to search out greener pastures outside the corporate world.
As the IPAG report puts it: “Traditional hierarchical organisations are struggling. People are increasingly rejecting traditional employment, with its lack of personal control and repression of creativity. New ways of working are emerging, new forms of collaboration, new structures, new alliances and new opportunities.”
With iPros clearly having so much to offer, it would seem to make sense to nurture the emergence of the independent professional through public policy measures. For example, it might be possible to introduce mechanisms enabling corporate employees to make the transition to self-employed iPro more easily, allowing them to work with organisations in a new and independent capacity.
Isn’t it time that we began to rethink those ‘old’ working paradigms in order to get the best outcomes in the best way possible? So rather than just offering traditional outplacement services to soon to be let-go employees, which are of limited value in an overcrowded job market, iPro training courses could be offered instead.
Given that becoming an iPro is a legitimate and realistic career option, these could be promoted and supported by government, as well as employers and professional organisations. This would be to the benefit of all, with iPros creating more work and organisations creating more jobs.
If you’ve been putting off taking the big step of going it alone because you haven’t wanted to be a freelancer, see yourself instead as an iPro, someone who is ahead of the game because they realise that the future of work is moving inexorably towards increasing independence and flexibility.