Free Agent Nation

Keep your options open and your image marketable in case your team “cuts” you from the roster

By Donald J. Strankowski

According to some reports, a person starting work today will have, on average, ten to fourteen full-time jobs and change careers three times in their lifetime.  Free agent workers—comprising temporary contract workers, freelancers, independent professionals and consultants—now represent almost 30 percent of the U.S. labor force, according to a recent study sponsored by staffing provider Kelly Services.  This number indicates a 25 percent increase in the free agent workforce since Kelly’s first nationwide workforce study in 1998.

The rate at which workers are changing jobs and careers has never been greater.  This current trend is mainly due to the rate of change in the modern economy, the increase in competition, and the unpredictable nature of the present business climate.  Companies need to be able to stop and turn on a dime which means today’s workers need to be able to do the same.

When assisting clients in staying ahead in today’s real world at work, I often advise them to start thinking like today’s professional athletes and adopt a “free agent” mindset.  No, I don’t mean asking for an 84 million-dollar contract and hiring an agent.  What I do recommend is that you should adopt the philosophy that you will be working for a certain company for a finite or limited amount of time, and then move on to a better opportunity when the circumstances are right.  You will perform your duties to the best of your ability and then, when you don’t fit in with the company’s plans any longer or they don’t fit into yours, you will part ways and start the process all over again—no hard feelings.  This is simply the way business works today.

My grandfather worked for a dairy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for over 30 years.  He progressed through a number of positions, from deliveries to finance, but always stayed with the same company.  When he retired, they bought for him a golden watch (yes, literally!) and gave him a wonderful retirement party.  He retired happily and started receiving his company pension soon after.  Those days are long gone.  Today’s worker needs to be prepared to transfer the skills they have learned from one company to the next and possibly, from one industry to the next.  The biggest career mistake you can make is to allow yourself to give in to the status quo and become stagnant.

Every year, most professional football teams turn over 20-30 percent of their entire roster size.  There are a multitude of reasons for this.  First, some players are let go because their contracts have expired and the team no longer sees a need for them.  A different set of players become free agents (literally) and shop around the league for a team who will pay them more money.  Some may have retired and some others may have demanded trades because of conflicts with the coaching staff and management.  An aging player’s skill level may have dropped to the point of where the team simply decides to cut them and puts them on waivers.  Some other players are brought in (usually at another player’s expense) to perform specific duties for a short period of time.  In baseball, a major league team who is hot in the pennant race in late summer often goes out and signs a top starting pitcher to help them win a few more games to increase their playoff chances.  The free agent mentality has been commonplace and accepted in professional sports for decades.

Today, it’s the same scenario on a corporate level.  Some employees are brought in to solve a certain problem or set of problems for a particular company.  When the problem is solved and/or the objectives are met, they’re on to the next assignment with a different company.  They are termed contract employees, and this sort of practice has now become commonplace in corporate America.

Becoming a free agent can make you even more attractive to employers if you’re embarking on a job search.  Many companies like to hire contract associates because they may not have to offer them the same benefits package or other company perks offered to regular full-time employees.  Plus, it allows the company to “try you out” before they bring you on full-time.

If you’re currently in-between jobs, contract employment can bridge any potential gaps in your resume and keep your skills sharp.  In many cases, you can also acquire new skills in having the option to work with other departments thus, increasing your skill set and marketability through cross-training.  Many full-time contract positions actually pay a higher salary or hourly rate when compared to regular employment due to the fact that in most cases, the company does not offer you any benefits.  Most employment contracts run from 3-12 months and need to be renegotiated after the contract period has ended.  It has been my experience that many contract employees are asked to come on to the organization as a permanent full-time employee if they’ve done a commendable job during their contract period.

To be more successful, one needs to adapt this free agent mode of thinking to their own career.  You may be let go at any time and, if your employment contract is relatively recent, it probably has what’s called an at will clause in it.  This clause states that you may let go at any time for any reason barring race, sex, or religion.  If you sign this agreement, which most people do or they wouldn’t be hired, it would be a tough battle to fight any termination you feel was wrong.  The fact is, most employment contracts today are written with an at will clause included.  So you owe it to yourself to always keep one ear to the ground regarding your own future.  Don’t be caught off guard!

Today’s modern athletes aren’t planning on being with same team for extended periods of time.  You shouldn’t either.  Adopt the professional athlete’s mindset and continue to keep your job searching skills sharp and shop around for a “better deal” if your current work situation is less than satisfying.  Maybe your “better deal” isn’t all about money.  Perhaps you just want a shorter commute to work and a more flexible schedule.  Regardless, it pays to always keep your options open.

Know that in most cases, your time is limited at your current place of employment.  A company’s main concern and top priority is to make more money.  Whether a certain work situation or outcome that affects you is right or wrong by your standards doesn’t matter—all that matters to the company is that it is profitable and growing.  If you no longer fit in to the company’s profitability model, you are deemed expendable.  Just like the professional athlete who no longer fit in with the team’s “direction.”  So be prepared!

Also know that you do not have put up with a negative work situation and/or low pay, no matter what the state of the economy.  You do have a choice!  But it is up to you to exercise this choice.  Do everything you can to keep your skills sharp and your image marketable.  Because before you know it, you may want to switch teams due to your own choice or due to being “cut” from the roster.

Donald J. Strankowski is founder and President of Ascend Career and Life Strategies, a training and consulting firm for professionals, executives, and career changers striving to gain employment.  He works out of Boulder, Colorado and can be contacted at 303-245-7049, via email at [email protected], or on the web at