Freelancers finding more open doors

Turns out hard times create new boom for the enterprising

Beth Lamberson works at the Durango Discovery Museum during her freelance work time – writing grants and helping the nonprofit with its fundraising efforts. Lamberson sold her beloved 1959 Chevrolet Apache pickup to finance the start of her freelance business during an anemic economy. She says the decision has paid off. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Beth Lamberson works at the Durango Discovery Museum during her freelance work time – writing grants and helping the nonprofit with its fundraising efforts. Lamberson sold her beloved 1959 Chevrolet Apache pickup to finance the start of her freelance business during an anemic economy. She says the decision has paid off.

It was a lucky turn of events that led Beth Lamberson into the world of freelancing when, after leaving her job in Flagstaff, Ariz. to move back to Durango, two local organizations sought her grant-writing and public-relations skills. But she had to make a solid sacrifice, selling her beloved 1959 Chevrolet Apache pickup, to jump full bore into a freelance career.

More than a year later, the decision is paying off well.

While going out on her own may seem like a risky move in a weak economy, Lamberson joins a growing contingent of Americans who are venturing out solo as independent contractors, consultants and freelancers.

The number of workers self-employed in their own not-incorporated business increased by about 12 percent from 2007 to 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while the number of nonemployer businesses that are owned and operated by only one person grew by 34 percent from 2000 to 2010.

About 2,500 people in La Plata County are self-employed, according to research done by Jasper Welch and Nancy Wharton, co-founders of Durango Space, a co-working facility on Main Avenue.

Many freelancers say they chose freelancing for the benefits of increased flexibility and freedom to create their own career. But for other people, independent contracting is a necessary path to create or keep a job at companies that can’t afford to hire full-time staff in tight budgetary times. During the recession and in these first years of recovery, companies are more inclined to hire employees as part-time or contract workers, said Rich Wobbekind, executive director of the Business Research Division and senior associate dean at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business.

It has become “fairly common” for companies that downsized in the recession to continue to use some former employees on a contract basis, Wobbekind said. The arrangement allows companies to avoid the longer-term commitment of adding full-time employees to their rosters and to avoid paying benefits and payroll taxes, he said.

The trend has taken hold in the virtual world as well, with online hiring and freelancing increasing more than 200 percent since 2009 according to Elance, an online employment marketplace.

And the same phenomenon is happening in the nonprofit world, said Lamberson, who works primarily for nonprofits in her grant-writing, public relations and event-management business. With tighter budgets, those organizations are having to make due with leaner staffs and are turning to freelancers for more tasks, she said.

Also, with charitable giving down in recent years, nonprofits have faced growing competition for ever-scarcer grant money. That means they’re turning to people like herself who specialize in grant writing to amp up the quality of their grant applications, Lamberson said.

“I really hit the sweet spot with the recession,” she said.

Malia Durbano, whose freelance services include copy editing, writing marketing materials and creating blog posts, also saw potential to create her own career during the weak economy rather than looking for work at an existing business.

“Especially in Durango, there are not that many real jobs,” said Durbano, who started freelancing in 2010, a year after moving to Durango.

Many of Durango’s small businesses don’t have enough work to warrant a full-time person, and that’s where she sees a growing opportunity for her business, Durbano said.

But the growth in independent contracting also means more people face the financial implications of being their own boss.Self-employment puts much more burden on the individual to cover the costs of health care, Social Security and retirement savings, Wobbekind said. Individuals have to pay the entire chunk of their Social Security and employment-insurance taxes and must purchase their own health insurance.

Lamberson said she has no health insurance and the freelancing gigs have made it tough to save for retirement. But that’s a price she’s willing to pay for now, she said.

In another arena, the growth in self-employed workers has presented an opportunity for businesses to cater to the industry.

Durango Space is one such business that saw promise in the growing number of “lone eagles” in the area, Welch said.

One-half to two-thirds of Durango Space’s users are independent contractors, consultants or freelancers, he said.

Durango Space is just one of hundreds of co-working spaces sprouting up across the country that satisfy a demand for new types of working environments, a demand spurred in part by millions of freelance professionals, according to I’m Outta Here, a book about co-working.

“People don’t realize the world of work is being totally reshaped,” Welch said.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

Durango freelance writer Malia Durbano works from her home office on Monday. Durbano has made freelancing work for her, and touts it as an option “especially in Durango, there are not that many real jobs,” she said. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Durango freelance writer Malia Durbano works from her home office on Monday. Durbano has made freelancing work for her, and touts it as an option “especially in Durango, there are not that many real jobs,” she said.