Avolatile job market, the advancement of technology and an appreciation of a work-life balance is making freelancing an attractive option for students who will soon be graduating from institutes of higher learning.
Globally, freelancers make 30 per cent of the workforce and are expected to increase to 50 per cent in the next few years. In Malaysia alone, the Employees’ Provident Fund reported that the freelance economy has grown by 31 per cent. Instead of temporary labour, freelancers are increasingly viewed as strategic and experienced professionals in key business verticals.
Recognising the impact of this rapidly emerging economy, INTI International University & Colleges (INTI) commissioned a first-ever survey to understand the freelancing landscape in Malaysia.
“To understand the growing adoption of freelancing as a career and recognising the role of freelancers in shaping the Malaysian economy, INTI did a survey of 300 full-time freelancers who represent professional fields of work including business, marketing, IT and computer science, culinary arts, and art and design. The survey uncovers insights on the freelancing landscape in Malaysia, as well as the potential role of tertiary education institutions and the government in responding to the growth of this sector,” said INTI Marketing, Products and Partnerships senior vice president Timothy Johnson at a panel discussion recently.
Conducted in the months of September and October, the survey covered freelancers who are defined as one who does one-of jobs and projects and short term contract workers who are employed contractually for less than a year. Region-wise 33 per cent were from Klang Valley, 33 per cent Johor, 17 per cent Penang and 17 per cent Ipoh while age-wise 66 per cent were between 21 to 26. Companies they service are start-ups (15 per cent), small and medium enterprises (50 per cent) and multinational or government-linked companies (35 per cent).
Responses suggest that more people are beginning to choose freelancing over higher-paying full-time jobs despite lacking the financial literacy needed to secure their future. Respondents also indicate that the Malaysian education system is not sufficiently preparing them for the competitive global freelance market.
“68 per cent of freelancers choose to freelance as a first career option despite the availability of full-time jobs. When asked what drives them, they listed flexibility in which they have the option to choose projects, a more diverse job scope translating to experience, and control over their own working hours,” said Johnson.
In spite the growing popularity of freelancing, long term financial sustainability remains one of the critical concerns for freelancers, with 66 per cent of respondents to the survey not having a retirement plan, while 33 per cent do not have a personal savings plan.
Subsequently, 65 per cent of freelancers ranked government recognition of freelancing as a formal career as the top of their wish-list, indicating that this would enable them to apply for social security, loans and capital that would facilitate their financial sustainability.
Other significant skills which more than 80 per cent of freelancers found crucial to their success were communications, interpersonal skills and problem solving skills. Further to this, 58 of respondents also felt that tertiary education had not sufficiently equipped them for freelance careers, suggesting that the Malaysian education system is not doing enough to prepare this new generation of professionals who are opting to move beyond traditional employment.
Survey findings indicate challenges faced by freelancers are establishing connections, promoting and marketing services, and understanding client needs.
Trisilco IT Sdn Bhd chief executive officer and an INTI alumnus Melvin Lim and Cilisos Media Sdn Bhd editor-in-chief Lau Chak Onn said as dynamic and versatile professionals, freelancers could become real assets to organisations and the economy as they leverage a broad perspective of ideas when engaged in projects. In spite this strength, however, there are still gaps in the opportunities and development of freelance professionals in the country.
Lau, a seasoned freelancer in Malaysia’s digital media said, “The job market has changed. With few ‘safe’ jobs available, more Malaysians are now jumping on the attractive liberal freelance market. Calling your own hours, keeping 100 per cent of the revenue, working from hipster cafes may seem like a dream job, but do freelancers really know what they are getting themselves into? Also, will this be good for the country in the long run?”
An entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience across various industries, Lim added: “The growth of the digital economy has disrupted the traditional labour market and given rise to platforms such as Freelancer and Upwork, easing access for freelancers to explore borderless working opportunities. Increasing technological infrastructures and connectivity via high speed Internet throughout the country is also enabling individuals to work whenever and wherever they choose. With technology driving the growth of the freelance economy, organisations will see a shift in their talent pipelines and must determine how they will adapt to remain competitive.”
As for financial stability, Employee Provident Fund (EPF) Strategic Management Department deputy manager Wong Theen Chuan said, it is worrying that despite the growth of the freelancing economy in the country, these professionals do not save for retirement, as about 70 per cent of Malaysians are below the global levels of acceptable financial literacy rates. “It is important that freelancers start equipping themselves with sound financial management knowledge as they are at higher risk of not having a long term retirement plan compared to full-time employees,” he said. Wong’s efforts in EPF includes working closely with the Malaysian government on policy formulation for financial protection.
INTI CEO Tim Bulow said that with continuous changes in the job landscape and economic trends, institutions of higher learning must reinvent their education offerings to meet the widening scope of employability.
“To ensure that we are preparing our graduates for diverse careers, INTI collaborates with over 450 industry partners in providing practical learning based on market needs. Integrated modules from IBM’s Innovation Centre for Education, Alibaba’s Global E-Commerce Talents programme and Google Ignite enhance digital literacy and help students to gain expertise in digital marketing and e-commerce — skills that help them build their online portfolios and market their services to future clients.
“Coupled with these are leadership talks, on-campus career development programmes and networking opportunities with senior business leaders that provide the transferable soft skills needed for graduates to excel in any industry, both in Malaysia and globally,” he said.
Bulow explained that INTI recognises the impact of freelancing in the growing scope of employment and is reinventing education to equip young professionals with the skills needed to thrive in the jobs of tomorrow.
“This survey serves as the first step into what relevant parties can work on to improve and prepare the next generation workforce for this future economy,” he concluded.