Where Freelancers Are in Demand

Last Updated Jun 1, 2009 10:15 AM EDT

So you've just been laid off and are thinking of hanging out your own shingle as a consultant, but you're not sure if there are opportunities for solo players in your field. Fortunately for you, many firms that have been shedding employees see consultants as a way to tackle new and pressing projects that must get done without taking on all the salary and benefits costs of hiring a full-time worker. These consultants may also be first in line for jobs when the economy recovers.

Here are three broad trends that companies are grappling with that should supply lots of work for "accidental" consultants. We provide a sampling of opportunities within each, as well as some advice on how to get your foot in the door with the people doing the hiring.

Trend #1: Follow the Feds.

Long before Barack Obama became president, the federal government was already expanding thanks to the Bush administration’s spending on defense and homeland security. Now that the stimulus and the second bank bailout are upon us, government will play a larger role than ever as a buyer of goods and services and a watchdog of industry. Business will need lots of help in how to adapt. Three hot areas where consultants are likely to be in demand:

Financial compliance. In the wake of Wall Street’s meltdown, financial institutions of all stripes are bracing for a galaxy of new regulations as well as stepped-up enforcement of existing laws. Many laid-off accountants, compliance specialists, and controllers should be able to find contract work designing or executing projects to bring companies into compliance, says Paul McDonald, who leads the finance and accounting division of Robert Half International. Robert Half and other placement agencies can be a good way to find out about opportunities, in addition to contacting companies’ compliance departments directly. Compliance specialist Loren Grant found his first consulting gig through placement agency M Squared Consulting, and built his referral network from there using LinkedIn. Financial pros with generalist backgrounds can position themselves for compliance projects by keeping abreast of trends in regulation and enforcement, Grant says.

Contract management and proposal writing. In almost every industry, companies will be competing for a piece of the huge stimulus payout that will flow through federal, state, and local governments. They’ll need advice on how to pursue contracts and write proposals, and on how to follow regulations once they’ve landed those contracts. Many consultants in this field gained inside knowledge of how agencies make decisions by working inside those agencies or writing grant applications as part of their jobs, says Neal J. Couture, executive director of the National Contract Management Association. John Porter had won plenty of grant money for the private school where he had worked as an administrator, but turned to consulting when the school closed down. Now an independent consultant, he helps businesses and nonprofits position themselves to receive government or foundation money. Porter says he finds lots of work at business mixers: “Typically I’m the only grant writer who’s ever been to the meeting,” he says. “And everyone knows someone who is looking for grant money.”

Trend #2: Efficiency is job one.

With markets shrinking, businesses are desperate to squeeze more from their dollar. And sometimes you have to spend money to save money — by hiring consultants, that is. Here are the top opportunities in promoting efficiency:

Project management. Corporate projects are more complex and team-based than ever, often spanning multiple time zones, cultures, and technical specialties. And like a big-budget movie, a major project can bleed cash quickly if it’s delayed for just a few days, so companies need project managers to ensure they stay on schedule and under budget. Though plenty of project managers are facing the ax in this recession, many companies still need them on a contract basis. “We can’t find enough highly qualified and competent project managers, and those we do find, we immediately put into a project,” says Kimball Norup, chief marketing officer of M Squared. Aside from placement agencies like M Squared, freelance job sites such as Elance.com and Odesk.com can be good for finding opportunities. Many larger firms have a project management office, or PMO, which keeps track of projects throughout the organization, while at smaller firms you’ll want to reach out to department heads to find out what projects are at the top of their lists.

M&A integration. The financial crisis led to a big wave of consolidation in banking, and as the recession continues and more industries shrink, get ready for more corporate marriages. Getting systems and people to work together in the wake of a merger is key to profitability. It’s a years-long task, and companies often turn to consultants to help provide an outside perspective and make hard decisions. This is a good opportunity if you can claim “change management” experience in fields such as HR, marketing, operations, or IT systems integration, says Norup. You can make the case that you have that experience if you worked at companies that restructured dramatically in recent years. Your best bet: contact department heads in your area of specialty at firms that have recently made acquisitions.

Trend #3: Technology keeps changing.

New technologies are moving forward regardless of the recession, changing the ways businesses interact with their customers and even their own employees. Most companies can’t afford to keep experts on all of these new technologies in-house. That has opened up opportunities in a number of areas:

Social media marketing. Marketers have started to realize the potential for running cheap, customized campaigns through social media. But every year the platforms change (from blogs to Second Life to MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on), which makes life challenging for marketing chiefs. While consulting is usually easier for professionals with plenty of experience, advising companies on how to use and set up social media can be a great opportunity for younger workers. Your professional experience might be in devising PR or marketing strategy, but you should have also built up your credibility in the social media world. After being laid off last year from her job as marketing chief of a data hosting company, San Francisco-based Kristie Wells had four offers for consulting work within 24 hours. Why? Two years earlier, she had co-founded a social media networking organization, Social Media Club, and everyone instantly knew of her availability and skills. You can also find work online at sites such as Guru.com and Elance. If you’re planning to canvas companies directly, though, be aware that different departments “own” social media at different companies, so do your homework to find out if it’s the marketing, PR, or perhaps interactive department you need to contact.

Data security. Even as companies are putting more of their valuable data on networks and sharing it across the globe, hackers from Beijing to Belarus are getting better at stealing it. Securing systems can be an exciting challenge, and the work can’t be shipped overseas. Tech aficionados who work in systems administration, IT project management, and business analysis are often good candidates to work in data security, says Chuck Arnao of Villanova University, which offers online training for the data security certification known as the CISSP. Getting certifications like the CISSP is almost essential for competing for freelance gigs in data security. Many jobs in this area are advertised on tech job sites such as Dice.com, or you can try contracting the chief technology or information officers at target companies.

The six areas above should continue to provide opportunities for consultants for years to come. But successful freelancers know that the secret to getting steady work is to anticipate clients' changing needs, so you'll want to stay abreast of trends in your chosen field, keep learning new skills, and always be positioning yourself as the answer to those needs. With any luck, you’ll have enough work to tide you over until the economy recovers and you find something more permanent than consulting.

  • Richard Sine

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