Increasingly, engineers are breaking away from traditional modes of work and embracing the gig economy. What does this mean for those making the change?
In the age of the internet, it’s easier than ever to go your own way and shake traditional modes of work. But the success of those working in the gig economy has not come without a unique set of challenges.
Julia Richardson, associate professor of human resource management at the Curtin Business School, told the ABC that casual labour makes up 2 per cent of the Australian workforce.
“That sounds like a small figure, but actually it’s a considerable number of the overall workforce,” she said.
Significantly, professional industries, including engineering, are beginning to make up a larger percentage of that number.
“I would say that with employers coming under increasing pressure in order to cut costs – and that can happen with respect to sick pay, with respect to holiday pay and so forth – it may well be that they decide to go for a more casual labour force,” she explained.
But hydraulic engineer Blake Boulton, who freelanced for three years before expanding into a small business, said the growing popularity of freelance workers in engineering also stems from engineers themselves. It speaks to bigger changes within the industry as engineers strive for more meaningful work and greater control over their time.
“A lot of engineering companies today are full service, and people feel like they have to sell other services. [Engineers] sometimes feel uncomfortable with that,” he said.
However, it’s not a completely loose arrangement. Unlike the creative industries typically associated with freelance work, civil engineer Dylan Chresby, who was previously a freelance engineer and now hires freelancers to work at his small business, said freelance engineering still requires structure.
“In my experience, being a ‘freelance engineer’ is still a very formal arrangement by necessity. We need to cover ourselves with professional indemnity insurance and other insurances, have formal instruments of engagement and have workplace health and safety systems in place,” he said.
“So in my opinion, for an engineer there is very little difference between being a ‘freelance engineer’ and a consulting engineer, a sole trader or operating within a company structure.”
An important difference, he said, comes with the ability to control your time.
“The difference of freelancing comes in the flexibility of working hours. If it’s a nice day, I’ll get in a swim or take my dog to the beach before doing site inspections. If it’s freezing cold, I’ll make a coffee and get stuck in on the computer. Sometimes I might be finishing a report at 11pm or catching up on invoicing on a Saturday morning, and I’m fine with that,” he said.
“Like many engineers, I feel I’m very effective and efficient with my time, and I was looking for a way to deploy my time in a better way.”
The freedom of freelance work also allows people to take on projects that interest them and give their work a sense of meaning — a benefit that, Chresby posits, is particularly alluring for engineers.
“Engineering is one of those professions that really want to help society in any way we can. Freelancing allows us to bring our skills into other sectors to genuinely add value to the community,” he said.
“Being able to work across different sectors is also great experience and allows us to cross-pollinate solutions and skills. I recently did some consulting work for public housing and this is definitely a sector that needs an injection of technical and project management support.”
Since starting his own business where he works with freelance engineers, Chresby has found that hiring people with specific areas of interest and expertise can be mutually beneficial.
“Hiring a freelance engineer is a great way to bring a skill set into an organisation for a specific project. It works if there is a project that is urgent or important, or if it’s a non-traditional problem. Engineers are great at coming up with novel solutions,” he said.
But the desire to pursue meaningful work can sometimes give way to the practicalities of daily life, like paying a mortgage, supporting a growing family or dealing with emergencies that strain the savings account.
For Boulton, ensuring the needs of his family were met on an income that ebbs and flows wasn’t the only challenge.
“After three years, I was starting to get left behind a bit with my technical knowledge,” he said.
“The industry is changing really fast, and because I wasn’t sitting around eight or 10 other people doing the same thing all the time, finding the latest and greatest of everything, I found I was getting left behind a bit. It was a lot of extra effort to try and keep up with where my former colleagues were at.”
Boulton encouraged anyone in a similar position to be proactive about maintaining their technical knowledge, but struggled to find a long-term solution.
“I would put more time and effort into attending conferences and doing online research. But I really didn’t manage to keep up,” he said.
Ultimately, he decided to expand his freelance operation into a small business to better spread the workload. Life as a lone wolf can also take a mental toll, and Boulton found himself missing the company of colleagues.
“I took on a business partner and the two of us worked out of the same company, both doing the freelancing thing for about six months,” he said.
“Then we started to hire some graduate engineers so we had someone to turn to to get that bulk work done and not have to sit there 24 hours a day,” he said.
Advice for future freelancers
Despite the challenges, both Chresby and Bolton are optimistic about the rise of the gig economy in engineering, and encourage would-be freelancers and bigger organisations to embrace the shift within the industry.
“I’d highly recommend it to everyone to have that experience and to have a crack,” Boulton said.
“There’s a bit of a feeling in the industry that if you do, then you’ve wrecked your career and nobody will hire you again. But that’s absolute rubbish. People value that business sense and they value that fact that you have a go.”
Chresby echoed this sentiment, and noted that added incentive for freelancers to work hard for larger engineering firms – a drive that is often mutually beneficial.
“Freelancers and small consulting firms work hard. We want to build trust and shape long-lasting business relationships. A good freelancer will over deliver, especially if there is going to be repeat business and a cooperative client,” he said.