Websites increase freelance options in Pittsburgh


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For print and graphic design specialist Lynne Ferrari, freelancing was a last-ditch effort to make a living in Pittsburgh.

After being laid off from her position as a marketing specialist with a Downtown real estate firm in 2010, she had little success finding a comparable full-time job in the region. With her severance pay stretched to the max and expenses piling up, by 2012 it was time to either go big in the open market or leave the North Hills.

"I would have left -- you have to pay the bills," she said. "And I really had no intentions of moving anywhere else. I've lived here my whole life."

Before the Internet, when freelancers were limited to working with local companies that may or may not have solid track records paying outside contractors, a freelance career was far from a solid bet. However, the recent emergence of online exchanges that connect contractors with businesses and jobs across the globe is helping scores of technical and creative employees transition into self-employment.

For Ms. Ferrari, who attracted enough work for a full-time salary after only 14 months of being listed on online freelancing exchange site oDesk, that transition has turned her into an international employee.

"I talk to people in Australia, work with people in the U.K. and Canada. I'm really into meeting all of these different people and finding these different projects," she said.

Ms. Ferrari's experience is becoming increasingly typical in Pittsburgh as well as other cities that teem with high-tech and creative talent but that lack the bricks-and-mortar establishments to fit them all in.

Online freelance exchanges such as Redwood City, Calif.-based oDesk and Mountain View, Calif.-based Elance allow contractors to sign on to databases where they can apply for jobs and post their skills and salary demands. Both companies handle a high volume of technical and creative work, but any type of that can be done online is up for grabs on the databases.

Both companies provide formats that allow employees to track hours, share information and lets companies draw their own impressions of freelancers through video interviews.

For contractors who have felt the burn of late payments, there's some reassurance in these exchanges. Companies pay oDesk and Elance immediately after a contractor is hired, and the exchanges pass payments on to contractors as soon as the work is complete. Elance includes an 8.75 percent service fee and oDesk includes a 10 percent service fee that companies pay as part of the freelancers' rates.

Freelancers can also snag new jobs and boost their personal profiles as they earn positive recommendations from companies they work with.

In Pittsburgh, the trend toward online self-employment is growing by the month, said Matt Cooper, vice president of international and enterprise at oDesk.

Mr. Cooper said the company saw nearly 400 percent growth in the number of contractors that signed on to the service in Pittsburgh between 2011 and last year. He declined to discuss the actual number of freelancers.

Conversely, he said more local companies have taken advantage of the database of willing workers, with nearly 48,000 oDesk workers taking jobs offered by Pittsburgh-based companies in 2012, nearly double the amount hired the previous year.

"Companies don't have the visibility to know what's going to happen in the next 12 months, so they need a model that lets them scale up and scale down as needed," he said. "For the freelancers, they like the flexibility and choice. A lot of people just like the lifestyle benefit that comes with freelancing, and it's hard to replicate that in the general employment model."

Elance chief marketing officer Rich Pearson said his company has also seen substantial growth out of Pittsburgh recently. During the first quarter, Mr. Pearson said Pittsburgh added 750 freelancers to the Elance database every month, and 100 to 150 Pittsburgh-based businesses posted jobs every month.

One feature that makes Pittsburgh particularly attractive, he said, is the fact that high-tech talent in this region tends to ask for significantly lower hourly wages compared to counterparts in high-cost cities such as Silicon Valley or New York.

"In the Bay Area, where tech workers are fully employed, if you want to hire an experienced designer, you'll pay about $125 an hour and wait a month before someone will talk to you," he said.

"But a company can go to Elance and [find] somebody in Pittsburgh, Miami or North Carolina, and they may be more talented but -- in part because of different standards of living or supply and demand in their area -- can hire them for $75 an hour," he said.

Wendy Witt, an O'Hara resident who built a full-time career as a legal writer on Elance after transitioning from being an estate planning attorney with a Downtown firm, said the system also works for freelancers because companies in high-wage cities are willing to pay top dollar for specialized knowledge.

After building a reputation on Elance with fellow attorneys as a solid writer, Mrs. Witt was able to earn $55,000 in her first year of work in 2010. Building off the momentum of that success, she is planning to start an online-only estate planning service this year.

Professionals who don't want their freelance work to conflict with their day jobs also have an outlet through online databases, oDesk freelancer Rebecca Nuttall said.

Ms. Nuttall, a Mount Washington resident who is a reporter for the New Pittsburgh Courier, said she picks up around four extra jobs a week ranging from press releases to writing the script for a training video used by the Small Business Administration thanks to oDesk.

She said she has never attempted finding freelance work through traditional avenues, but doubts she would have obtained the same quality of opportunities. "If I was going for this job without oDesk, I would have had to apply for a job with the U.S. Small Business Administration, and that would have been highly competitive," she said.

While self-employment is only poised to grow -- the online freelance exchange industry is expected to grow from a $1 billion dollar industry this year to $5 billion by 2018 -- it's not a threat to the traditional 9 to 5, Mr. Cooper said.

In an oDesk survey of employers conducted last year, 87 percent of respondents said they would not hire locally if the exchange didn't exist, with the majority saying they would simply complete the extra work in-house or do without the work getting done.

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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