Self-Employment and the ‘Professional Experience’ Dilemma

This is the time of year when it’s nearly impossible to avoid a graduation speech. Whether you’ve attended a ceremony, or have just been bombarded with YouTube links via your social media outlet of choice, you’ve likely been recently reminded, along with hundreds of thousands of newly minted graduates, to “pursue your dreams”.  Commencement speakers rarely miss a chance to remind us to “do what we love”.

Of course, those of us who have graduated and moved on to find gainful employment are familiar with the difficulties of finding that job which perfectly marries your skill set with your moral direction and sense of purpose in the world. For some young graduates, self-employment is a way to create your ideal work situation.  I mean, what better way to pursue YOUR passions and dreams, than by being your own boss. However, the entrants into the freelancing world aren’t always there completely by choice.  According to the Current Population Survey, on average, a full 25% of a graduating undergraduate class will still be unemployed the following October. We have come to understand and accept the challenges of the job market brought on by the recession.  The lack of job opportunities, coupled with the limited hours and lack of benefits that come with what jobs are out there, has created an economic environment for the young professional that necessitates experimenting with some type of freelance work.

Self employment averages around 3% of recent college grads, though the data is lacking in this area.  And many advanced degrees lead to careers where self-employment is common.  For example, the U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics cites self-employment rates of 18 percent for veterinarians and 22 percent for lawyers.   The U.S. has an estimated 10 million self-employed jobs.  However, this figure sneakily does not include owners of incorporated business, freelancers, or those who earn a secondary income from self-employment.  The actual data of self-employed workers may be hazy, but for anyone who has or is currently paying his or her way through library school, working multiple jobs or freelancing is very real.

And so back to those graduation speakers, who in many cases are asking us to take all the risk.  We never hear them sound platitudes of “tow the company line”, or “help someone else pursue their dreams.” No doubt, is very possible to be happy, finding your place in a larger organizational structure. These things aren’t mutually exclusive.  But, those who have gone the route of self-employment have taken not just a financial risk, forgoing the right to collect unemployment benefits for seven years, they have also placed a bet on their future.  They face significant challenges as it relates to finding other work, or applying to school in the future.

So I ask, is self-employment or freelance work not valued on equal footing with other “professional experience”?

CapSelf-employment is certainly visible in the library world.  Consulting is a common type of freelance work.  Specialty services such as digitization can often be run effectively by a one-person LLC.   However, it’s the type of self-employment that doesn’t regularly deal in corporate business or partnerships that can be severely undervalued.  For example, buying and selling on eBay would be a great skill set for a special collections librarian to have as they seek to fill holes in a collection.  A job candidate who has been a private instructor or tutor exemplifies not only a strong ability to communicate but also customer service and professionalism.  A performing artist intimately understands contracts and working with vendors.   The familiarity with social media, ability to design and create content, as well as promotion and community engagement are all skills acquired through producing or contributing to a podcast or blog.  This new digital curriculum of website creation and blog discourse is now practically mandatory for graduating library school students.  However, it often still exists outside the realm of what is regarded as “professional experience”.

Yet, self-employment does not fit very neatly into the script for school applicants or job seekers.  Self-employed people face three main obstacles when applying for jobs:

1. A lack of references.  Self-employment leaves you without a major, first-choice source for references or letters of recommendation.  Because of this, it becomes even more imperative to secure solid references while in school.  In some cases, references from peers in your field are a good alternative.  This could be someone you have collaborated with on a document or presentation.  Also, client references could be an option depending on your field.

2. How to relate your experience and show it’s value.  Trying to make self-employment history fit neatly into application forms designed for corporate job structure is a metaphor for how at odds your experience is with their expectations.  With all the jobs you’ve taken on, your resume or CV could be a book.  Then again, it could just have a single entry: “Self-Employed”.  There is no right way to reconcile this.  What is in your control is how you talk about your experiences, both in your cover letter and at the interview.  HLS has tons of great advice on this front in the Job Searching category.

3. How to dispel the notion that your self-employment history may be at odds with full-time service/employment.  Workers with a history of self-employment can often be unfairly perceived as being selfish, or as someone who will not be able to put his or her interests aside while on the clock.  This sort of logic can be the most damaging if it not directly addressed in the interview process.  Some jobs have explicit rules regarding second jobs and if you are looking to add a formal job to existing freelance project, there may be rules regarding moonlighting.   On one hand, an employer’s concern over conflicting work schedules is completely legitimate.  On the other, the perception of the formerly self-employed as not loyal, or as preoccupied is plain wrong.   The self-employed person is efficient and knows that his or her time is money.  Juxtapose that with a typical 9-5 worker who sits at a computer and has g-chat open all day. The propensity for the average full-time employed person to be distracted by personal business is immense.

Have you encountered prejudice regarding your employment history in the job search process? How have you conveyed the value of your skills gained through self-employment?

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