WASHINGTON: Two years into his new career writing code for phone apps, Leo Landau works for companies as far away as Australia, while never leaving his apartment in Eugene, Oregon. By year-end, he expects to earn US$10,000 (RM31,800) more than inspecting buildings for asbestos, a job he lost in 2008.
"I'm working from home, setting my own schedule and making decent money," Landau said. He doesn't plan on moving to California's Silicon Valley, even if he could land higher-paying work there. For now, the self-taught programmer, 31, said he enjoys cobbling together an income via Elance, a website where companies and short-term contractors pair up.
Digital freelancers such as Landau represent a growing portion of American workers. Some of these independents are attracted to the flexible lifestyle, others because they can't get a job locally that matches their skills. They are replacing traditional work - being employed by a company - with a mix of projects completed over the Internet.
"I compete with people from India and Russia, all over the world,'' Landau said. "They tend to have low prices."
He said he has a competitive advantage in that "a lot of US contractors like to hire someone from the United States, because I can communicate a lot better".
The recession that ended in June 2009 helped boost freelancing as a way for the newly unemployed to support themselves, and the practice has gained traction since.
Internet exchanges allow companies to reduce labour costs by enlisting freelancers, who give up a reliable salary for discretion over how they work.
"All major recessions change the lens on how we approach work," said Andrew Liakopoulos, a principal in Chicago at Deloitte Consulting LLP and co-author of a report this year called "The Open Talent Economy".
People "don't necessarily have to be fully employed, with a number and a badge".
Behind this shift, Liakopoulos said, is the technological ability for companies to divide their needs into projects and farm them out to a talent pool regardless of geography. As companies move toward accessing labour, rather than acquiring it, they'll be able to respond more nimbly to macroeconomic shocks, he said.
The freelancers often are highly skilled and choose that style of work because it offers them flexibility and variety, Liakopoulos said.
"People used to have a stable 40-hour workweek," said Sara Horowitz, who founded the Freelancers Union, a New York non-profit membership and advocacy organisation.
"What we're seeing now is an economy where people are going from job to job, putting together a series of gigs and calling that a career."
These workers may be excluded from official employment statistics as the measures haven't adapted to cover new, more fluid arrangements, she said.
"I think the unemployment numbers are wrong," Horowitz said. "They're just not reflecting the reality of how many Americans are working."
The jobless rate was 7.3 per cent in August, the lowest since December 2008, and labour-force participation was the lowest in 35 years, down to 63.2 per cent.
Private studies have tried to quantify how many Americans are turning to freelancing for a career.
An estimated 20 per cent to 33 per cent of the US workforce consists of independent workers, according to a 2013 study by Accenture plc, the world's second-largest technology-consulting company.
Emergent Research LLC, based in Lafayette, California, has conducted a national survey of independent workers in each of the last three years. A study that incorporates the results puts their numbers at 17.7 million this year compared with 16 million in 2011, and forecasts an increase to more than 24 million in 2018.
"This sector jumped out as growing rapidly," said Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research. Companies want to be lean and are "less committed to commitment, avoiding fixed costs whenever they can."
Services such as Mountain View, California-based Elance Inc are smoothing out the process of finding, monitoring and paying adjunct workers. Members seeking gigs have profiles that showcase their credentials, portfolios and feedback they've gotten; they typically compete for projects by submitting bids on the site.
Employers using the website "can manage and collaborate with their freelancers with the same ease as you connect with friends on a social network," Elance chief executive officer Fabio Rosati said.
The company claims that more than US$883 million has gone to contractors since the website began listing gigs in 2006. It takes a cut of transactions and holds the employers' payments in escrow, so that freelancers are assured of getting paid. In exchange, with the freelancers' consent, employers can receive screenshots chronicling the progress on their projects.
Elance users are distributed worldwide, with more than 350,000 living in India. About one-third of its almost three million freelancers are based in the US. Bloomberg