Independent Worker: An Interview with Gene Zaino, CEO of MBO Partners
The meaning of the “workplace” continues to evolve in the Digital (also referred to as the “gig,” sharing or on-demand) Economy. From shared workspaces, to the introduction of machines, artificial intelligence and robots into the workplace, traditional employer-employee relationships that we have known in our lifetimes are being reconfigured at a rapid pace. I caught up with Gene Zaino to explore some of his thoughts in response to the following questions regarding a growing segment of the workforce-the self-directed or independent worker.
How do you define independent or contingent workers, and are they one broad category or would you classify them into different segments?
MBO Partners defines independent workers as adult Americans aged 21 and over of all skill, education, and income levels who turn to consulting, freelancing, contract work, temporary assignments, or on-call work regularly each week for income, opportunity, and satisfaction.
The entire contingent workforce is a broad category. Anyone working in a nontraditional job – that is, outside a 9 to 5 desk job – could be considered a contingent, temporary, or “gig” worker. But the ride-share driver you frequently see on the road faces different challenges than the independent consultant working for a major accounting firm, so it’s important to make distinctions between these groups when discussing issues like providing portable benefits and meeting their business needs.
How much of the American workforce is currently comprised of independent workers, and how do you think that will change in the next 5 years?
There are just under 40 million independents in the American workforce, which includes 16.9 million in full-time positions, 12.4 million who work part-time, and 10.5 million in occasional independent roles. We expect the number of independents to grow to an impressive 48.9 million by 2021. By this time, nearly one in two people will work independently, or will have done independent work at some point in their careers. Suffice it to say, the independent workforce is rapidly growing and the workforce we knew even five years ago will look vastly different in another five years.
What do you see as the main drivers behind the rise of the independent worker?
The numbers and testimony from our annual survey show that independents overwhelmingly find independent work is a satisfying, and self-determined, choice. Both full and part-time independents say their career choices stem from a desire to have greater flexibility, freedom, control, and purpose. In terms of flexibility, 63 percent of independents cite control of their schedule as a top reason to work independently, and 59 percent say their top motivator is the increased flexibility independent work provided not only in their careers but across all aspects of their lives.
Forty-seven percent of full-time independent workers report making more money on their own than they would in a traditional employment setting. Specifically, three million independents earned more than $100,000 last year, a 50 percent increase from the two million who earned the same just five years ago.
Generationally, Baby Boomers now constitute 31 percent of the independent population, driven in part by the desire to supplement retirement benefits that are facing sharp declines over the next decade. But the independent workforce is also growing younger, millennials accounting for 40 percent which is higher than their makeup among the labor force at large. In contrast to Baby Boomers, Millennials see independence as an opportunity to get a toehold in the labor force and as a resume-builder.
What are the main needs of independent workers?
One of the major needs of independent workers is the ability to maintain a robust network of clientele for future work. Like all workers, independents also need benefits to support themselves and their family, including retirement/401(k) and health insurance. Since those benefits are often employer-provided, it can be difficult for independents to find security working on their own. MBO Partners helps by providing access to group plans for its qualifying associates as well as by educating independents on how to acquire portable benefits.
Do you find that independent work is more appropriate for experienced workers in their field of expertise, or can those new to the working world successfully embark upon independent work arrangements?
The independent workforce is diverse – it includes Americans of all ages, skill, and income levels who turn to independence for income, opportunity and satisfaction. We’ve seen a growth in the experience level thanks to the continuing commitment of more seasoned workers primarily from the Baby Boomer generation. Many independents report getting work assignments because they offer a specialized skill that requires certification, special training, or education. This often means added experience in the form of years on the job.
However, millennials just entering the workforce also represent a growing percentage of the independent workforce – up to 6.76 million last year from 1.9 million in 2011.
Are employers in particular industries more inclined to engage independent workers currently and will this change in the next 5 years?
As the workforce continues to change, employers across nearly every industry are engaging and hiring independent workers, and we see the flow between traditional and alternative work arrangements increasing in numbers and growing in momentum over the next five years. By 2021, almost half of the private workforce is forecast to have spent time as independent workers at some point in their work lives. As a result, savvy companies are already competing to become a Client of Choice for top independent talent. Forward-thinking companies are already thinking of the best ways to engage independent workers compliantly and efficiently, often using a company such as MBO Partners to do so.
Does the proliferation of the independent worker erode the promise of the so-called social compact or “model social safety net” or do you see ways that these workers can obtain retirement savings security, and other necessary employee benefits?
The growth of the independent workforce has changed the way we think about providing employee benefits, and companies like ours have adapted to that change. MBO Partners has provided portable benefits to independents for over a decade, giving our associates access to the power of their group purchasing to access healthcare, disability and business insurance, as well as 401(k) options for retirement savings.
Moving forward, the government will need to take steps to help the independent workforce. This may involve further discussion of portable benefits, the creation of a new classification of worker to help independents work compliantly with clients, or something else entirely. MBO Partners is proud to work closely with top leaders in Washington and on Capitol Hill to remain a part of these vital ongoing conversations, now and in the new administration.
Author’s note: As the workplace continues to change, employment arrangements will evolve. It will become increasingly important for employers to monitor changing employment -related laws and regulations and to ensure that adherence is given to current laws, especially with regard to worker classifications, overall workplace management, employee benefits and immigration issues. As the nature of the very workers retained to perform services changes in unprecedented ways, new ways of thinking about these issues and regulating them will surely come to pass.
Gene Zaino, a nationally recognized expert in the contract workforce market, launched MBO Partners to re-invent the way independent consultants and organizations work together. MBO Partners provides technology solutions and personal service that both simplify and expedite business processes for self-employed professionals including: incorporation, contract setup, billing, financial management, payroll, tax compliance, and health and retirement benefit programs. MBO Partners also provides access to the largest network of “engagement ready” enterprise companies, as well as portable benefits to independent workers. Zaino is a major force in the independent workforce movement, committed to making it easier for self-employed professionals and their clients to work together.