10/09/2018 | By Fixpocket
Stories of great industrialists who rise from the mailroom to the C-suite are legion. They inspire us, and we celebrate both the path and the person who climbed to the summit. For example, billionaire entrepreneur Barry Diller started in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency and went on to become President of Paramount Studios and eventually built IAC InteractiveCorp. Sidney Weinberg, the storied head of Goldman Sachs started as a janitor’s assistant. Even Simon Cowell of American Idol fame began his career at the bottom of EMI Records.
It will be tougher for the new generation of would-be corporate titans to rise from bottom to top. The bottom – the mail room – is either gone or contracted out.
In an interesting article for the Wall Street Journal, Lauren Weber unpacks the extent to which employers are expanding their use of contractors and freelancers to reduce cost, increase flexibility, and limit potential liability. As David Cush, former CEO of Virgin America, was quoted: “We will outsource every job we can that is not customer facing.”
The airline was not alone in taking advantage of the freelance revolution. Google parent Alphabet has approximately the same number of contractors and freelancers as regular employees. Apple contractors are estimated to provide 90% of the total workforce. Accenture recently predicted that within a decade a Fortune 500 company would rise with the only the C-suite as traditional employees.
What does this mean for ambitious young men and women who want to make it in big business? Some pundits are suggesting that the “start in the mailroom” approach has been replaced by “start as a freelancer”. For example, one blogger put it this way,” In many companies, temping has replaced the mailroom job. Companies like to use staffing agencies as recruitment tools, and often will offer attractive candidates temporary employment doing filing or data entry until a permanent job opens up. Some staffing agencies, like Manpower, will even train their candidates in computer programs and other skills so they can seek a higher position on the corporate ladder. “
Jeffrey Moss, CEO of Parker Dewey, might second that motion. His talent platform connects college students with companies like Microsoft, offering brief freelance assignments as a way to build experience and attract a full-time job.
What are the implications of a shrinking “start at the bottom” career path? There is certainly some cause for regret. One can reasonably assume that, without the mail room or its equivalent, terrific talent may be overlooked or remain undiscovered. As Weber writes in her article, “The shift (to greater contract and freelance workforce) is radically altering what it means to be a company and a worker. More flexibility for companies to shrink the size of their employee base, pay and benefits means less job security for workers. Rising from the mailroom to a corner office is harder now that outsourced jobs are no longer part of the workforce from which star performers are promoted.
But, there is also a silver lining. As Parker Dewey demonstrates: As old doors close, new ones open. Although new careerists may be losing one tried and true path to future fame and fortune, they have gained another. And, they have gained other advantages as well. As freelancers, even if only for a short period, they have learned valuable lessons in managing a business (their own), how to present themselves, how to communicate to colleagues and managers. And, for many, the experience of successful freelancing is a significant confidence builder.
So, for those eager to climb up the corporate ladder, a freelance path to the front door might be the opening you have been looking for. And, the next cohort of corporate Brahmins may be more likely found in freelance roles than the mailroom.
(Note. This post was updated 8/28/18 to correct an error. David Cush is the former CEO of Virgin America, not Alaska Airlines as previously stated.)
I’m an HR thought leader, author, teacher and entrepreneur. My book, "Agile Talent" (Harvard, 2016), and articles describe the freelance revolution, what it means and where it’s headed for both individual freelancers and organizations that employ and depend on them. My Ph.D....MORE
Jon Younger authored Agile Talent, HR From the Outside In and HR Transformation, among other books and articles in several publications and his blog “Freelance Revolution.”