We all know technology like robotics and artificial intelligence will surely impact the future of work. But beyond the technological disruption that’s occurring, a social shift is also taking hold—one that, according to Rich Pearson, SVP of marketing at Upwork, will change the workforce as we know it.
In this exclusive interview with CMO.com, Pearson describes the future of work, the role of freelancers and flexibility, and how digital has disrupted HR and how companies hire.
CMO.com: A 2017 study by Upwork about freelancing predicts that that the majority of the U.S. workforce will be freelancers by 2027. What trends are you seeing in the workplace today that are driving this?
Pearson: The same study found that technology is making it easier to find freelance work. While technology is the main enabler, the study shows the top driver behind why people decide to freelance is to have more freedom and flexibility to work where and when they want. The more talented the professional, the more likely they are to go out on their own, and people with in-demand skills are especially likely to choose to go independent as they stand to earn even more that way. Since freelancers frequently possess the skills necessary for businesses to remain competitive, companies are having to rethink how they hire. As Millennials and Gen Zers move into the workforce, this trend is likely to continue to grow. Currently, almost half of working Millennials, 47%, freelance, a participation rate higher than any other generation.
CMO.com: What is your outlook on how technology will change the workforce of the future?
Pearson: Technology, like artificial intelligence, will undoubtedly have an impact on the type of work that we do. That said, I do not believe that AI will displace or overtake a large number of jobs, but will instead create opportunities that require more specialized skills. When you look back in our history, every technology disruption has followed this pattern. And as AI demands a new set of skills, freelancers become an even larger portion of the workforce, as freelancers are almost twice as likely as full-time employees to participate in skill-related education. By the nature of having to market themselves on a regular basis, freelancers stay ahead of the technology curve and are well-suited to support new fields like AI.
CMO.com: What will the future of work look like?
Pearson: I think about this a lot, as I have one daughter in college who will soon join the workforce. I believe that traditional job security is a thing of the past—my daughter won’t be able to attach herself to a company and expect to grow her career automatically. Her success, and that of every other professional, will depend on continually investing to improve skills and build income security. In the future of work, your skills will be your currency.
CMO.com: What skills or character traits will be most important for the workforce of the future and why? Which skills will be less important?
Pearson: Other than continually investing in yourself, it will become increasingly important for people to learn how to work most effectively with distributed teams. Written and verbal communication skills will be more important than ever. While it’s not a specific skill, I think the need for generalists, people who have a basic skill set in various fields, will decline. The availability of freelance specialized talent will make the need for generalists obsolete.
CMO.com: How has the freelance job market changed in the past few years?
Pearson: Freelancing used to be something that you said out of the side of your mouth when you were between jobs, but over the last few years we have seen significant growth in the freelance job market—not just in the number of people who are choosing to freelance, which is up 10 points since 2014, but in the perception of freelancing as a career, according to our 2017 study. Freelancing is becoming a more respected career path. In 2017, 69% of professionals agreed that perceptions of freelancing was becoming more positive, which was up 6 points from just one year prior. Similarly, we see professionals from all skill and experience levels electing to freelance. In fact, 67% of people agreed that professionals who are at the top of their industry are increasingly choosing to freelance.
CMO.com: Do you see a role for blockchain in the freelance world?
Pearson: I have to admit that I was skeptical about blockchain. The hype seemed over the top, but in actuality we may have underestimated the impact of blockchain. We are seeing a notable increase in hiring for blockchain-related projects on Upwork. Every quarter we release our Skills Index, which ranks the fastest-growing skills on our site, and blockchain has ranked at the top of the list for the past two quarters. This consistent and explosive growth shows that blockchain is here to stay and, at least for now, is a huge opportunity for freelancers. Freelancers are already learning and reskilling in blockchain, and as companies adopt the technology, freelancers could serve as the experts.
CMO.com: How is digital disrupting the HR department? How do you expect that to pan out?
Pearson: HR teams are increasingly moving away from traditional work models in favor of a more agile workforce. Traditionally, HR was focused on full-time employees, while freelancers fell under procurement’s domain. The separation between traditional and flexible—i.e., freelancer, temp, or agency workers—work teams limits HR’s ability to effectively source the best talent as they don’t have a full view into their total talent supply. As the workforce continues to evolve, it is incumbent on organizations to bridge the gap between HR and procurement in order to have a more holistic view of the workforce. This shift will allow HR departments to have a more thorough understanding of their entire workforce and better inform their hiring needs.
CMO.com: What are you personally doing today to upskill yourself and your team? How will that keep you ahead of the game?
Pearson: First and foremost, we drink our own champagne, as our French CEO likes to say. I empower all of my team members to hire freelancers so that they are able to get more done. As a result, our marketing team consists of 40 full-time employees and about 25 freelancers, ranging from demand gen marketers to video producers. Oftentimes, freelancers have expertise that helps our core team learn new approaches. We find that incorporating freelancers not only extends our bandwidth, but helps us think differently and get new concepts to market faster, all while being much more cost-effective than traditional staffing approaches.
As for myself, I am slowly brushing up on my web developer skills. I’ve joined a service called Pluralsight, which provides great courses that I really enjoy. Check with me in a few years, and I might be hawking my own skills on Upwork.
CMO.com: What can today’s enterprises do to refine their hiring efforts?
Pearson: Traditional hiring processes are slow and no longer make sense in a digitized world. Not only has hiring gotten more difficult due to talent shortages, but it is both a slow and costly process. Enterprises that use traditional methods will take, on average, 36 days to fill an open job and spend roughly $4,400 per hire. As a result, the most effective businesses are extending their workforce capabilities by leveraging freelancing websites like Upwork to gain access to a diverse pool of outside talent. This creates speed, value, and flexibility to help enterprises stay innovative and competitive in today’s global business environment.