In an industry that is constantly racing against the clock and in a region that is weighed down by economic and social restrictions, it seems more and more difficult to find and retain jobs that reward employees in more ways than one. The natural progression of the global job market has made people demand more flexibility, more income and, eventually, more freedom. And as the market and its younger demographic mature, freelance work is only set to grow and cross boundaries, both geographically and traditionally.
“Globally, online work is one of the fastest-growing trends [in recruitment]. It has witnessed a 700 percent increase in growth since 2008 and is estimated to be a $10 billion industry by 2020,” says Kara Schoeffling, director of communications and partnerships at Nabbesh.com, a regional freelance portal. Currently, 34 percent of the American workforce comprises freelancers, according to a September 2014 report by non-profit organization Freelancers Union and freelance portal Elance-oDesk Inc, entitled: Freelancing in America: A National Survey of the New Workforce. This number is estimated to reach 40 percent by 2020, according to the Intuit 2020 Report. But, how do these numbers reflect in the region?
At present, the UAE ranks number five in the list of countries hiring freelancers – with more than 20,000 UAE-based jobs and more than 27,000 UAE-based freelancers registered on Elance-oDesk, which opened its Dubai offices in June this year. “With two thirds of the Arab world’s population under the age of 29 years, we estimate, very conservatively, that there are nearly 20 million people from the KSA, the UAE, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan that would be interested in the freelance workspace,” says Schoeffling. According to regional job portal Bayt.com’s 2013 report, Freelancing in the MENA Poll, 53 percent of companies in the MENA region is hiring freelancers as a cost-effective contingency plan in between full-time recruitments. What’s more, the report adds that approximately 70 percent of MENA professionals would consider freelance over full-time employment and as much as 75 percent thinks freelancing is a good option for someone working in the MENA region, where they are perceived to earn more money than full-time employees.
In the digital age of instant gratification and decreasing attention spans, “people don’t want to work from nine to five. [They] want flexibility,” says Schoeffling. “These kids [20-somethings], by proxy, have increased their market value and, aside from working in agencies, they probably have two or three projects going on the side. I know quite a few [of them] who work as SEO specialists and they have five or six freelance projects going on and are making just as much money outside,” explains Justin McGuire, managing director at regional recruitment agency MCG Associates. “Unfortunately, in this region, education doesn’t always translate into a job. So, freelancing is also a way for fresh graduates to gain experience and let their talent speak for itself,” adds Schoeffling.
While the youth refrains from full-time employment, largely due to personal preference, in the region, it’s tradition and family obligations that are holding women back from being an active segment of the workforce. The Emirati Women Perspective on Work and Political Participation report by the Dubai Women Establishment states that women would participate economically if there were mobility and flexibility in the labor market. “We know anecdotally that women enjoy online or freelance work. And in places such as Saudi Arabia, where they are more restricted, freelancing is taking a stronger hold,” says Schoeffling. Aggrieved conditions in certain Arab countries are also driving people to look for additional sources of income. “We know there are low wages in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, where having a full-time job is not enough. There’s always a need for supplemental incomes,” says Schoeffling. On the job market in Lebanon, Khaled Tayara, head of HR at Quantum Group – which houses M&C Saatchi, among other agencies – concurs: “I have noticed requests [from employees and candidates] for a certain amount of flexibility, especially from people working in graphic design, media and communications [who] are [taking] a lot of jobs outside of the company.”
The same does not hold true for countries such as the UAE, where the growth of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is creating more job opportunities. In Dubai alone, SMEs represent 95 percent of all establishments, according to a report by Dubai SME, entitled: State of SMEs in Dubai. “Nintey percent of our clients is micro- to medium-sized companies. These [SMEs] can’t grow unless they get more talent. Since they can’t afford to hire full-time employees at the start, especially for niche sub-set skills [such as video-editing or animation for one-time projects], they are definitely turning to freelancers,” explains Schoeffling.
But, it is not only SMEs and small agencies that are tapping into the regional freelance pool. Nabbesh.com’s clients have grown to include Leo Burnett, MCN (Middle East Communication Network), Memac Ogilvy and Impact BBDO. “Some companies want to maintain their anonymity and a lot of them [agencies] hire anonymously through a personal ID [rather than an official company ID], as they don’t want to advertise that they are hiring [freelancers],” says Schoeffling.
That could very well be true, as most agencies deny any sort of dependence on freelance suppliers. “As a company, we do not rely on hiring freelancers unless we have a global freeze on headcount approvals. As a general rule, the company prefers to have full-time employees,” says Khaled Abounader, director of talent and learning and development management at VivaKi. However, Schoeffling feels that hiring freelancers is a good way for companies to bring “fresh ideas to their teams and insights, which these freelancers have gained from working with multiple agencies across the region. A lot of people try to hire their best freelancers as full-time employees. So, it’s a good way for them to see upfront whether someone will work out without making a long-term commitment”.
“If they [companies] have a project that is very niche or time specific, they might turn to freelance portals or hire freelancers through word of mouth,” says Muhammad Younas, product manager at Bayt.com. Put under the pressure of time-bound projects that require specialist skills, agencies often can’t afford the luxury of full-time employees, “because it’s neither time efficient nor cost effective. We’ve actually had jobs to fill within 30 minutes – which is probably faster than food delivery,” jokes Schoeffling.
“The advertising industry, by nature, is such that jobs can be freelanced, unlike sectors such as banking,” Younas points out. No wonder, then, that out of 22,761 UAE-based jobs posted on Elance.com, 40 percent is for creative fields and another 40 percent for marketing. On Nabbesh.com, 54 percent of all jobs falls into what can be broadly described as the creative field; 26 percent is in design and multimedia, 15 percent in sales and marketing and 13 percent in writing and translation.
“The biggest trends we are seeing in freelance hiring entail the growing need for Arab [-speaking] talent with creative, digital and writing expertise,” explains Schoeffling. Additionally, the growth of SMEs, coupled with the digital frenzy in the region, has created a need for specific technical skills that are rarely found here. In this regard, Schoeffling feels that freelance work breeds an “interesting cross-pollination of ideas and skills”, especially in countries such as “Oman and Qatar, where finding available full-time hires isn’t as easy as it is in the UAE”.
Owing to the scarcity in specialized technical talent – which is particularly expensive in the UAE – 37 percent of Nabbesh.com’s payments has been across the border. Not only does hiring a freelancer saves companies’ up to 50 percent the cost of hiring a full-time employee, according to Schoeffling, but it also offers them access to a global pool of talent without the risk and cost of time-consuming visa, relocation and accommodation processes. And, needless to say, it’ll spare a few free-spirited souls the horror of calling someone their boss.
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