NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- The U.S. career sector is changing, thanks to online and mobile technologies, and a new found passion among career professionals to take total control over their own destinies.
These trends comprise the cornerstones of freelance nation, an ever expanding employment market that now claims 53 million workers -- or about 34% of the U.S. workforce. 40% of those freelancers are classified as independent contractors, while another 27% are considered moonlighters -- professionals who are working on their own time while holding a full-time job with an employer.
"Freelancers and independent professionals represent a fast-growing third of the American workforce according to recent studies," notes Doug Brackbil, CEO of Line2, a cloud-based telephone services provider. "They are mobile, virtual, and as likely to be found in cafes as conference rooms. Additionally, they deliver precise, timely expertise on an as needed basis for their customers in exchange for a flexible work style and project diversity."
Freelancers definitely view their career paths differently, too.
Naresh Vissa, founder and chief executive officer of Krish Media & Marketing in Tampa, Fla., started his first business while in college. "I produced terrestrial radio shows remotely while attending school at Syracuse University," he says. "While finishing business school at Duke University, I turned down opportunities in consulting and banking to pursue more entrepreneurial roles within the information publishing space."
Now, Vissa's business has been his primary source of income for two years now. "When I started it, I was immediately making about 20% more than what I was paid with my previous employer," Vissa adds. "The freelance economy is growing rapidly. Companies are cutting experienced employees and hiring more contractors to cut costs. With so many people out of work, and the demand for independent contractors?on the rise, it only makes sense that the freelance economy will continue to grow."
Vissa advises any career professionals thinking about going the freelance route to specialize - the more vertically, the better. "You need to bring truly unique skillsets to the table," he says. "If you have a specialized skillset - computer programming, Google AdWords, copywriting, copyediting, ideation, offshore rig structural design, selling businesses within an industry - then even less expensive international competitors won't be able to compete with you."
Joining a business or networking group can get you some traction in freelance nation, too. Caryn Starr-Gates, is a freelance copywriter since 2008, after a career as an advertising copywriter. "I would definitely advise anyone to join a networking organization and start meeting potential clients," Starr-Gates says. "The more you can out your name credentials and face in front of hiring managers, the further you advance."
She also advises having some savings to act as a financial cushion while you ramp up.
"It can take a while to nab a great-paying and steady client so be sure to have money stashed away to cover your living expenses while you build your relationships," Starr-Gates says.
Others who have thrived in the freelance life say that thinking matters through, and then acting fast, is a big key in attracting new clients to your business. "You need to be super organized and incredibly proactive," notes Michelle Nickolaisen, creator of the Freelancer Planner, an organizational tool specifically for solo entrepreneurs. "My biggest tip for a seamless transition is to start actively pitching potential clients, and more of them than you think you'll need to pitch. Do so for a solid three months before leaving."
Nickolaisen says the last time she left a corporate job, she started pitching one gig every work day and three-to-five gigs every weekend day in early April, knowing she was planning on leaving in May. "That way, by the time I left the job, I had a full client pipeline and several gigs to start on immediately."
Another tip - finding working may be easier and closer than you think. "Try and negotiate with your current company to be a freelancer rather than being an employee, as many companies are receptive to this idea," says Crystal Stranger, tax operations director at Los Angeles-based 1st Tax Inc. "Also, be really diligent when contacting companies. A "no" answer just means you haven't proved how valuable you can be yet."
Think long-term, and act locally when you're just getting started in your freelancer career. "Start small - there's nothing wrong with doing projects for family and friends a ?first," says Laurence Bradford, an Allentown, Pa.-based freelance technology career expert and writer. "Also, sometimes early on you have to work for free. If you do, make sure to get a testimonial in exchange, and make sure to add it to your online portfolio."
"No matter what you do, get yourself known on social media, especially LinkedIn," she says. "You can really take advantage of that."
Going the solo career route is an intriguing idea to traditional, corporate-based workers -- especially younger ones who aren't as firmly established and are accustomed to using technology tools on the job. Do it right and you can be your own boss, be there for all of your kids' birthdays, and set your own rules and calendar for your workday.
There's no safety net, but then again, playing it safe isn't a big priority for freelance nation.