A trend over the last 20 years is that of freelancers, or contractors, as they are also known. Knowledge workers who hire themselves out to companies temporarily.
In the 1980’s it was comparatively rare. You only went freelance if you:
- Were extraordinarily bold, and had no fear of being unemployed;
- Had a particularly high-value set of skills that were hard to find, and that companies were prepared to pay a premium for;
- Were approaching the end of your career, and had a great network of powerful contacts who were prepared to compensate you handsomely for some consulting (often business-development-related).
Downsizing in the 90’s
With the 1990’s, a lot of large companies found they had to downsize their work forces to stay afloat. The cast-off knowledge workers often went freelance because they had no other choice. Companies still needing their skills on occasion could hire them for short periods to get work done, and then let them go without worry.
By the end of the 1990’s, the aerospace industry had recovered, and needed those workers back. But the freelancers had now developed a taste for freedom, variety, and the greater financial rewards that go with increased risk. Companies now found themselves having to hire contractors involuntarily, and out of desperation. Their options were: (a) Hire contractors at rates that were uncomfortably high, or; (b) Hire Nobody, because there were insufficient permanent staff to be had.
It was Revenge of the Nerds.
I was a permanent employee at Airbus at the time, and knew many contractors. Hardly any were tempted to return to permanent employment. Those that were, usually regretted the decision very quickly, and went back to contracting as soon as they were able.
An uneasy truce
The pendulum has now swung back a bit, and there is an uneasy truce between aerospace companies and freelance knowledge workers.
The Internet has changed the game. It is now possible to package up work that can be easily defined, and send it anywhere in the world. The skills won’t come to you? Fine, we’ll send the work to them.)
Aerospace companies have grudgingly accepted that freelance professionals are not going to be persuaded to return to permanent employment. They have therefore structured their supply chains to minimize the risks of dealing directly with hundreds of freelance knowledge workers.
They instead hire smaller firms to handle the “procurement” of the necessary skills. These smaller “sub-contract” firms often then hire even smaller firms that act as little more than recruitment agencies.
It has become a pyramid-shaped supply chain of skill and talent, with each layer skimming off a tidy profit margin and then delegating the problem to the layer below. At the very bottom lie the individual freelancers.
Freelancers aerospace professionals still have a measure of freedom, but do not have the lucrative opportunities they had 10-15 years ago. They also must suffer multiple layers of bureaucracy, and the corresponding inefficiencies. Each layer can slow down the flow of useful information, or block it altogether.
Web 2.0, Clouds, Crowds, Open-Source, Makers . . .
Add to the mix Web 2.0, and all the online tools and trends that have accompanied it over the last decade.
Email is now free. Data storage is now free. Social media is free. Video broadcasting by individuals is now possible, and free. There are countless online tools that allow you to save time and outsource or automate unpleasant tasks. The costs associated with starting up as a contractor are now almost zero. What isn’t free, is very cheap.
The costs associated with starting almost anything are now almost zero.
Along comes YouTube, and it is now possible to broadcast to the world a video of university projects or your hobby at home.
Along comes Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and it is now possible to raise money for said project, even before you have completely figured out what you’re doing.
Along comes the Maker Movement, and open-source technologies like Arduino and DIY Drones. Bingo. it is now possible to develop and fly your own unmanned aircraft, for completely novel applications, and sell directly to the end users of the product. No need for intermediate firms or big bureaucratic aerospace companies.
These are trends to which the corporate aerospace world is only just (barely!) waking up. (Most senior managers are only just learning how to tweet!) They have heard about them, but don’t understand what the changes are, let alone decide how they are going to react.
Which means, they will react by doing little or nothing.
This poses a great opportunity for engineers and techies wanting to do their own thing! Especially for young aerospace engineers just getting started! (More on this in a later post.)
In the next post, I’ll get down to the question that obsesses us all at one time or another – How on earth am I going to find a job doing what I was trained to do?