The State of Upgrading Skills Among Freelancers, Employees

Traditional employees and freelancers update their skills at different rates. How will this impact the talent market of the future?
Upskill business

Most working Americans are aware that they need to learn new skills. More than 80 percent of employees feel they have a responsibility to improve those skills, yet about one-third of employees said their employers have failed to offer or pay for them to do so, according to Randstad’s quarterly Workmonitor survey.

Given these trends, other survey findings become more intriguing. Global freelancing platform Upwork commissioned “Freelancing in America: 2017,” a study that revealed 65 percent of freelancers are updating their skills, yet only 45 percent of full-time employees are doing the same.

In an ideal world, employees would take training into their own hands. However, the incentive to do so is more obvious for freelancers, said Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Mountain View, California-based Upwork.

The Future and Freelancers

Full-time employees have the safety net of an employer; they don’t need to worry about finding work because the employer provides it. Freelancers, however, must keep abreast of the most in-demand skills to improve their prospects of finding their next gig and commanding a high premium. “It’s not completely surprising” that freelancers upskill at higher rates than full-time employees, Kasriel said.

As freelancing continues to grow, there will also be more workers with updated skills that companies need. And “the more freelancers we have in the economy, the more resilient the economy is to the changes that are coming,” Kasriel said. “In many ways, it’s a healthier way of building the economy, where the people who care the most about their skills are also put in charge of reskilling themselves.”

Conditioning for Training

There are many reasons why workers become freelancers and then upskill more than full-time employees.

“There’s definitely a chicken-or-the egg issue here,” said Josh Wright, chief economist at iCIMS, an HR software company in Matawan, New Jersey. Some workers will reduce their hours or become freelancers in order to free up more of their days for acquiring skills. Others face difficulties in finding work, so they use their breaks to improve their prospects through educating themselves, he said. “Whatever the cause, these numbers raise the question of whether corporations are investing enough in their own employees’ learning and development and if not, how they should adjust their investment,” Wright said.

More than the cost of learning new skills, others think the issue is a lack of strategic thinking on the part of executives. Some leaders are considering their people strategy in terms of augmenting staff or improving training, but they are not yet planful about how to accomplish the changes, said Michelle Prince, senior vice president and global head of learning and development at Randstad, an employment agency.

Another challenge when improving staffers’ skills is geographic dispersion. A multiday, in-person training event can be expensive, Prince said. Instead, companies often can take more cost-effective approaches. “The whole idea of learning is shifting and changing,” she said.

These new approaches to corporate training can happen on the job, through shadowing and with stretch assignments. These informal training mechanisms fall under the umbrella of upgrading skills, though employees might not agree, which leads to the Randstad finding that many employers don’t offer to pay for upskilling, Prince said.

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For those with training programs, it is helpful to simply communicate options to employees. Randstad does this during open enrollment as well as on a quarterly basis, Prince said.

Still, some hesitations hold companies back from providing the necessary training for its workers. One of the greatest barriers is not knowing or communicating about what learning needs to take place, Prince said. Figuring this out should not wait. “If you’re not looking at those things on a strategic basis right now, you’re already a little bit behind the curve,” she said.

“Companies should realize that it is not an acceptable solution to just wait,” Upwork’s Kasriel said. If not retraining, the default is often to simply let their employees’ skills become less relevant, to the point of layoffs. This is an issue for the economy, he said. When large groups of people lose their jobs and lack the skills to gain new ones, then unemployment rises. “In the long term, obviously, it’s bad for the economy and it’s bad for society, but frankly, in the long term, it’s bad for those companies because ultimately, workers are also consumers,” he said.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email