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No-tie affair

The burgeoning ‘gig economy’ may prove in time that freelancing is the future for workers. Tan (inset) says we need to invest in quality infrastructure to spur the growth of the freelancer market
Throngs of talents worldwide are leaving cushy office jobs to strike out on their own.

The “gig economy”, consisting of those making a living through short-term work assignments, is burgeoning. The rise of on-demand, independent contractors – such as drivers for the ride-sharing giant Uber – raises the question: is freelancing the future of work?

According to Kelly Services Malaysia, one in three workers globally is a freelancer. Asia-Pacific leads the trend with free agents making up 34% of the workforce.

The number of Malaysians registered on Freelancer.com, one of the top independent contractor marketplaces, had also doubled in the past three years to 206,000.

Evan Tan, regional director for Southeast Asia of Freelancer.com, points out that Malaysia’s user growth is the third fastest in Southeast Asia, just behind Indonesia and the Philippines. He declines to reveal how much local freelancers have earned via the platform, but tells Focusweek that their earnings have ballooned 56% within the past 12 months.

Even Putrajaya wants in. Backed by the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), the eRezeki programme aims to uplift the low-­income households by training and supporting them to perform independent work. It claims to be “a unique public-private partnership funded by the Malaysian government”, and forms partnerships with marketplaces like Freelancer.com, Massolutions, and Upwork.

In the great machine of employment, employees are the screws holding it together. And they are coming loose. Gone is the notion of hunkering down in one company until presented with a gold watch.

“At a typical organisation, more than half of the employees who are on permanent payroll are already looking for their next opportunity. Another 25% aren’t actively looking to leave but will do so if they’re approached with a good opportunity by another firm,” says Melissa Norman, managing director of Kelly Services Malaysia.

She adds that one out of three in Asia-Pacific is considering a switch from traditional employment to freelancing, while 61% see freelancing as a lifelong career – the highest percentages worldwide.

Companies are increasingly jittery about the shrinking talent pool that can sustain their organisations.

“Unless organisations start looking at free agents to add value to their workforce, they may soon find themselves losing the best talents available in the market,” she explains.

Eric Lee, co-founder of the freelance consultant matching platform Mindgap, believes that the freelance market can redefine how companies use talents.

To him, freelancers open up the potential to create a “sharing economy among the corporate sector”. In other words, a firm no longer only relies on the talent locked within its own employment pool, but can tap into “a wider source of freelance talent from other companies”.

“And if we amplify that on a regional basis, it means that companies don’t have to rely on only local talents. They can use Malaysian talents working in Singapore or Indonesia.

“We can see talents being utilised on a regional level, because we are all in the same time zone, and we don’t need to be physically present to get things done. This can actually help to alleviate the brain drain problem that Malaysia is facing,” says Lee, who is a consultant currently based in Singapore.

Turn to pages 06-07 for the full story in the latest issue of Focusweek.
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