How Companies Use Freelancers to Improve Hiring and Diversity

By Jeffrey Moss posted 05-29-2019 07:46


By Jeffrey Moss, with contributions from Adam Hecktman and Matt Mottola

Entry-level hiring is broken. Consider this: according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than half of recent college graduates left their jobs within a year. Despite a more than $150 billion dollar staffing and recruiting industry, companies and candidates alike still struggle to find the right fit.

Matt Mottola, Project Manager for Future of Work & On-Demand Talent Platforms at Microsoft, shares his perspective from when he graduated college:

I thought I wanted to be a financial planner ever since the second grade when a friend’s mother described her job as “I help your parents afford to take you to Disney!” Yet it wasn’t until I got to college, started to apply for internships, and actually scored one at a Big 4, that I realized something just wasn’t right. For me, I was lucky to have discovered freelancing which helped me to discover a new way I could help others and earn a living.

While there’s no solid data on how many times professionals will change careers over a lifetime, job hopping has become more common, with poor fit highlighted as the top cause. But poor fit can come in a variety of different packages. For Adam Hecktman, Director of Technology & Civic Innovation for Chicago at Microsoft, bringing in more diverse candidates was a no-brainer to help boost results—the trouble was finding diverse candidates that felt that they fit.

While our overall recruiting initiatives focused on target schools and existing employee connections, I realized we needed to think beyond the existing talent pool to find candidates that wouldn’t get recruited away by competitors.

Entry-level professionals, in particular, struggle with finding the right fit upon graduation due in large part to lack of context: Unlike prior generations, recent grads are constantly inundated with reasons they should be unhappy at their job, whether it is the suit-and-tie employee seeing an Instagram post from a friend wearing flip-flops to work while petting the company dog, or the member of a start-up getting an inmail message from a recruiter promising a grandiose title and benefits. Without having the context to understand that the proverbial grass is not always greener, career launchers are much more willing to quit for a new opportunity within these perceived greener pastures.

Still, with the average cost-per-hire at $4,425, no employer wants to be a college student’s not-so-sure-its-green-for-me stopover. As interest in tech apprenticeships and traditional internships grow to the benefit of both students and companies, the problem is there are not enough of those and there are barriers that prevent access to these experiences for all students. Consider the college athlete who is involved in intensive training during the summer internship season; the non-traditional student that cannot take time away from a paid job to participate in an unpaid internship; and even the student located hundreds of miles away from a major metropolis who simply doesn’t have access to companies offering meaningful career experience. 

Meanwhile, these same students and companies have embraced the gig economy, with more companies using on-demand, short-term, and contractual employees to complement full-time staff. Most notably, Microsoft has not only embraced freelancers on-demand, but also become a champion for other companies to learn from on how to launch and scale a freelance workforce. Both Matt and Adam use micro-internships to apply the freelance gig model to working with college students. 

Matt shares his experience working with Lauren: 

I credit freelancing to helping me accelerate my career so when I was in need of help, I wanted to give a recent college graduate an opportunity to gain experience while learning fast. As a result I provided a micro-internship opportunity to Lauren, a college student who was trying to determine her right path. She did a great job on a project I struggled to conceptualize, yet she took my idea and ran with it. I’ve worked with her on more projects since. 

Lauren looked good on paper, but without actually working with her on the initial project, there was no way for Matt to determine if she had critical thinking and creativity needed to turn an idea into a tangible output. 

Adam, too, needed extra help when he turned to micro-internships to complete a project: 

Rachel came from a school outside of our existing network, but I was impressed with her application to work on our project, so I gave her a shot. Both me and my team saw she was awesome and had an incredible work ethic, so we ended up offering her a full-time internship. 

Like Lauren, Rachel’s resume and coursework demonstrated she possessed the hard skills required for the job, but without seeing her work in action, there was no way to effectively judge her potential. For both Adam and Matt, working with college students and recent graduates brought new insights into their projects and provided opportunities to assess soft skills – those skills core to all professional roles

While Microsoft had no long-term commitment or obligation to continue to work with freelance Micro-Interns, the experiences created a meaningful connection that expanded beyond the initial assignment. Unlike a traditional three-month internship, freelance assignments provide faster cycles for both students and companies. Students and recent graduates explore careers and gain experience while learning. Companies explore candidates and gain new perspectives.

Jeffrey Moss, Adam Hecktman, and Matt Mottola will present  How Companies Use Freelancers to Improve Hiring and Diversity during the NACE 2019 Conference & Expo, Wednesday, June 5, from 2 - 3 p.m., Lobby Level, Asia 4.