By Eloise Vitelli, Women, Work, and Community
Mainers have a reputation for being independent and scrappy, characteristics that help explain why so many of us — 195,100 by some estimates — are self-employed or work in very small, micro businesses, those with fewer than 5 employees.
Now, it seems the rest of the nation is once again following Maine’s lead: A report released this month, The State of Independence in America, touts the growing numbers of independent workers across the country, said to be 17.7 million, a 10 percent increase from the base year of 2011.
It should be no surprise that a growing number of individuals, tired of looking for work in a sluggish economy, have turned to creating jobs for themselves as freelancers, consultants, contractors, creative professionals, entrepreneurs, and small business owners. The report seeks to better understand who these independents are, what they like and don’t like about working solo, and what their growing numbers mean for the rest of us.
The study finds that independents can be found across all industry sectors, educational levels, and age groups. Collectively, they are generating significant income — $1.2 trillion, and are employing the equivalent of 2.3 million full-time workers. Most independent workers report high satisfaction and have plans to continue; some, 14 percent, plan to grow into a larger business. Men and women are equal participants in this trend.
In Maine, it seems more men than women have taken the reins over their work life (57.8 percent compared to 42.2 percent) and construction, professional, technical and scientific, real estate, and other services are among the industries in Maine that have the most go-it-alone independent workers, according to Economic Modeling Specialists data.
We asked a small sampling to help illustrate the world of independent workers in Maine.
“I worked as a freelance writer for many years on the side,” said Monica Pettengill Jerkins, a Madawaska resident, “so when I was laid off from my position as editor of a local paper, it made sense to fall back on what I had already been doing. There are not a lot of jobs out there for writers.”
While Monica is just getting started, she is already working on plans to grow from being an ‘independent contractor’ to owning a media/marketing firm serving the needs of other small businesses.
“I’m looking forward to managing my own time, answering to my clients, though at the moment I miss having others around to brainstorm with,” she said.
For Michael Roberge, sole proprietor of Odds and Ends Painting in Freeport, being on his own has allowed him the flexibility he needs as a single father that was hard to find as someone else’s employee.
“I didn’t want to be stuck in a low-wage job or working part-time so I could take care of my kids,” he said.
Sub-contracting with other painters and contractors – co-oping – expands his customer base. While Michael admits “it’s not easy” having to be out there generating customers with no guarantee of consistent work, for now he is satisfied with what he is able to earn as his own boss and looks forward to having another good year.
Pat Hart, a market research and evaluation consultant based in Gardiner, has worked for companies, large and small, but has found she really enjoys working directly with customers on project work. While she agrees there is uncertainty in doing independent projects, “there is a lot of uncertainty in any workplace.”
She has a full-time employee who works with her, though finding affordable professional support services as a small company can be challenging.
“As long as the opportunities keep coming in, I will continue my consulting practice,” she said. “If an employment opportunity comes along that allows me to grow professionally, I wouldn’t rule that out.”
Peter Broderick of Farmington has worked in construction his whole life, from New England to the West Coast, including a stint running his own company. His love of the outdoors, hiking, and a special someone he met along the way brought him at last to western Maine. When he was laid off for the first time, he decided it was time to go out on his own again.
“I worked with a lot of talented people and made plenty of mistakes on other peoples’ dimes as well as when I tried this myself,” he said.
This time, Peter did his homework and sought outside help before starting Broderick Construction six years ago. Peter enjoys managing his own workload and being able to control the quality of his work. Finding skilled, reliable help is sometimes a challenge for a business that ebbs and flows with the seasons, but he has recently hired office staff to help manage his steadily growing business.
As more adults move between independent and traditional work, as the report suggests and these four individuals illustrate, we should find ways to help people navigate successfully between the two worlds.
Eloise Vitelli is the program director for Women, Work, and Community, a statewide organization that has provided training and assistance to start-up entrepreneurs since 1984. She is also a state senator representing Sagadahoc County and the town of Dresden.