Engineers and the gig economy: breaking ground in the new normal


The way we work will never be the same again. As the worldwide pandemic persists, people are increasingly opting to connect with others remotely. From coworkers and supervisors to friends and relatives, connecting virtually through our computer and mobile device screen is the new normal. Outside of the office, this trend is influencing how workers interact with the dynamic, often turbulent, labor market.  

Remote work is in—going to the office is out. 

Telecommuting has reshaped our idea of work. Untethered from a physical office, many workers now enjoy better work-life balance and improved career mobility. In this economy, the worker holds all the cards. And those with niche skills, such as professional engineers, have an especially stacked hand.  

With this newfound advantage, many people are quitting or plan to quit their current job to seek more gainful employment. Inevitably, the shift in power dynamics across the labor market is giving rise to new modes of work. During the National Society of Professional Engineer’s sixth annual Professional Engineers Conference, leaders in the engineering industry—including Kelly Engineering’s Maria Groszek, Susan Walsh, and Ron Bergh—discussed the state of the profession and how to build a sustainable career in the emerging gig economy. 

The current state of engineering employment 

Following the onset of the pandemic in 2020 and the economic turmoil that followed, many positions were eliminated across industries. Fortunately, lay-offs in the engineering sector were less common.  

Overall, engineers have suffered less job loss. Even amid this enduring pandemic, engineering is recovering. Job openings are projected to increase and unemployment to decrease as the demand for professional engineers triples over the next five years.  

Even still, the turnover rate for engineers is 30%. The chief contributor to turnover is burnout, as more workers resign in an effort to find better jobs and more fulfilling work. 

The Great Resignation 

Workers across many industries are leaving their jobs at record rates. According to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly four million Americans quit their jobs in April—a 20-year record. Currently, a whopping 40% of workers are planning to leave their current position; 54% of these workers are Generation Z. Broadly speaking, the most common—albeit obvious—reason for this deluge of resignations is high job dissatisfaction.  

So, what are these workers looking for? Prudential’s “Pulse of the American Worker” survey reveals it mostly comes down to these three things: improved work-life balance (27% of respondents), better compensation (26%), and a change of pace (26%).  

While organizations scour this “chaotic, competitive, and cutthroat” landscape for workers, in-demand engineers have been using this turbulence to their advantage. Engineers are now looking for jobs they find satisfying and meaningful, all while negotiating higher pay and better benefits. To workers who expect greater work-life balance, remote work is treated as a sign-on bonus. 

The workforce of tomorrow and the gig economy 

Due to the rapid digital transformation caused by the pandemic, the ubiquity of remote work has increased worker flexibility. With this flexibility came the rise of freelancing, independent work, and other types of gig talent. In fact, Upwork’s Freelance Forward 2020 report found that in mid-2020, 12% of the U.S. workforce began freelancing for the first time. These new freelancers skew millennial, male, and urban. As well, many are caregivers to children or aging parents and tend to have experience in business/tech industries. 

Currently, 30% of the workforce report that freelancing is their main source of income. And according to Upwork, 96% of freelancers say they will continue gig work. What’s more, the gig economy is growing three times as fast as the normal labor economy. Gig work is definitely here to stay. 

But how does the gig economy affect employers? In one word: positively. Because remote work and freelancing allow people to work from practically anywhere, employers can attract better qualified, more specialized talent; increase productivity; and even employ workers on a trial basis. 

Professional engineers and the new normal 

The gig economy is well-suited to engineers. Freelancing gives engineers the mobility they need to try out different jobs and industries to find projects they’re passionate about. Contract opportunities also encourages networking and enables engineers to determine their work-life balance. Additionally, freelance jobs have the potential to become full-time positions: last year, 30% of engineers on assignment were eventually hired. And for late-career engineers who are thinking about retirement but aren’t quite ready to exit the workforce entirely, gig work provides opportunities to remain engaged on their terms.  

All that being said, how can engineers build sustainable careers in this new normal?  

Business leaders at the NSPE panel encouraged engineers to be builders. Build your résumé with relevant projects across industries. Build your network and relationships. Build your reputation by being dependable. Much of this building can be facilitated by working with a knowledgeable recruiter. A recruiter who can facilitate your move to another industry. A recruiter with experience in engineering knows how to disassemble your work experience into skills and repackage them to match what employers are looking for. 

So, what’ll it be? Will you work the way you’ve always worked, or join this new world full of opportunity? If you’re interested in breaking old barriers and breaking new ground, Kelly Engineering has re-envisioned how professional engineers hire—and are hired—for the better. Learn how we empower you with the flexibility you seek through our Contract Professional Engineering solution.