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FREELANCING IN THE UK

Global Banking & Finance Review interviews Julie Stewart, Chairman of PCG about the growth of the freelancing community and the role it plays in the financial sector.

Hi Julie, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Can you tell us a bit about PCG and how you got started with them?

Julie Stewart
Julie Stewart

PCG is the UK’s membership organisation for freelancers, contractors and independent professionals. We now have a membership of 22,000 which includes people working in every single sector of the economy.

I was one of the original 2,000 members in 1999 when PCG was formed. In 2000 I joined PCG’s Consultative Council, an advisory body elected annually from the PCG membership. I then joined the Board of Directors in 2004 and I was elected Chairman in May 2013.

Over the years I have been lucky enough to see PCG grow into the ‘voice of freelancing’ and in recent years mature into one of the UK’s leading business organisations.

You have worked in IT for 34 years and have been a freelancer for 27 years.  What attracted you to freelance work? How has the industry changed over the years?

I went freelance when I was made redundant in my 20s. I was seconded to a sister company of the organisation I was working for so it made sense to start up as a freelancer. Even though it happened by chance, I’ve never looked back!

The IT industry has changed dramatically since I first started working in it. It has become much more agile. When I started computers were the size of rooms and were incredibly slow, but now you can work remotely and have access all over the world. It’s also not as male-dominated as it once was.

Why do you think freelancing is growing?

Independent research shows that there has been a sharp rise in those choosing to go freelance across Europe, as much as 93% in some countries. It is now the fastest growing sector of the European Labour Market and that growth is matched across the world with Australia and the USA seeing similar levels of growth.

The way we think about ‘work’ has fundamentally changed. The idea of a job for life and the security it brings no longer holds the appeal it once did. People want to be independent and they want to have real control over their own work/life balance. They can choose how much they work, when they work, the work they do and even where they do it – be that at home, at the client’s office or in a workhub.

Businesses are also waking up to the fact that flexible access to highly skilled resource brings real competitive advantage. Every business can benefit from ‘bringing in the experts’. In short, freelancing is growing because of the flexibility that it offers – to the businesses that use them and the freelancers themselves.

What are the major issues facing freelancers?

A lot of the issues freelancers face are the same as any other small business. After all, that is exactly what they are – the smallest businesses around in fact!

For example, late payment is a major issue for freelancers. Although the Government has put in place a Prompt Payment Scheme which recognises this problem, the scheme is only voluntary for big businesses to sign up to and doesn’t include any sanctions. The only way this scheme will work in practice is if it is compulsory at the very least. It would still be hard for a freelancer to ‘shop’ an offending client without damaging that relationship but it would be a start.

What role do freelancers play in the finance and technology sectors?

Because the finance sector is highly regulated with so many legislative changes with strict deadlines, freelancers are often brought in as and when they’re needed for labour-intensive projects. That access to scalable resource on a flexible basis is crucial to remaining competitive. It also makes good fiscal sense. Having highly-skilled people in permanent employment is an unnecessary cost.

In the technology sector, freelancers are crucial because of how quickly new innovations now develop. Freelancers are a vital component in the development of new products and services, and as such, they are crucial to growth.

For tech firms that are looking to move into new areas or develop new offerings, bringing in freelance resource for the early stages is a sensible way to explore viability without risk. If the expansion is successful, permanent employees can be added for the longer term but if it isn’t, the project can be ended swiftly and with much less cost.

Lots of tech firms work this way and it is very effective. It also suits the freelancers because they are constantly innovating, which is usually what they got into this way of working for in the first place!

What advice would you give to anyone looking into becoming a freelancer?

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when you’re making the decision of whether to go freelance. Firstly, freelancing can be risky because it doesn’t offer the security of a traditional 9-5 job so I’d advise that you think carefully about whether it is right for you. Secondly, it isn’t easy – you need to be prepared to put yourself out there to build your contacts so you need a lot of self-motivation.

It’s by no means all doom and gloom though – I virtually guarantee that every independent professional had the same concerns before they chose to go freelance and most of them would never look back. The positives certainly outweigh the negatives and it does get a lot easier after a little practice.

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