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Self-employment: the rise of the ‘odd-jobbers’

Job insecurity and a lack of opportunities have swelled the ranks of the self-employed – and the charge is being led by women

It was my mother who summed it up. “I’m in my late 50s and I don’t have a degree. All that’s available to me is boring little jobs in offices or supermarkets. Then I thought, ‘Why not make a job out of the things I do at home anyway?’”

And so she and her business partner, an estate agent, set up Shabby Little Secret last October to sell the quirky vintage finds and “shabby chic” soft furnishings I grew up watching my mum sew or paint at our kitchen table.

My mum is a member of one of the fastest-growing clubs in the UK, that of the self-employed, whose ranks had swelled to a record 4.1 million – or 14.2% of all employed people – according to the Office for National Statistics, by last autumn.

As a woman, she’s one of their hardcore. While two-thirds of the self-employed are men, 60% of those who have become self-employed since 2008 are women.

There is some dispute over the meaning of this trend. Some think it is an entrepreneurial boom; others, including John Philpott, chief economic adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, points out that between summer 2008 and summer 2011, nearly 27% of the new self-employed moved into “elementary occupations”, or unskilled, intermittent odd-jobbing.

“It’s likely that most would take a job with an employer if only they could find one,” says Philpott.

Yet many who have become self-employed amid the current economic crisis, find themselves glad to be there. Between the loss of job security, the erosion of employment rights and a working quality of life people got used to in the past decade, there is a sense that classic “employment” is a thing of the past for the groups who dominate the new self-employed.

Financial recruitment consultancy Robert Half says 29% of human resources executives in the UK cite work-life balance as the main reason employees leave. Paul Wilson, who works with self-employed clients at accountant Beever & Struthers in Manchester, notes his newest punters: a PR consultant and kitchen planner “who realised they could do their jobs better if they did it for themselves”; a computer vendor “who reckoned he could do the same job in his pyjamas from his front room”; and three guys who set up a solar panel business. “They’re making so much cash I can’t keep track of the noughts,” he says. “One of them turns up to our meetings in a Bentley. Or his Mercedes, if he’s roughing it.”

Dan Smith, 35, quit his media advertising career a year ago, exhausted by the culture. With no money coming in, he found himself labouring for a friend’s building firm – but is now looking into apprenticeships in the building field. “I was on £35,000 and had a budget to entertain clients. But I hated it,” says Smith. “I left because my boss was an idiot. The company agreed, but said he was too expensive to sack.”

While Smith admits labouring is not well-paid, he enjoys “being outside, doing different jobs every day, knowing what’s expected of me and not dealing with office politics. I’ve spent a decade filling the pockets of my shareholders and my bosses.”

Many in the new wave of self-employed people are now discovering their true potential. Many, like Wilson’s clients, came to self-employment voluntarily when they realised that without much job security they were better off. Many were laid off and saw no other options. In the middle of this, Venn diagram is a group of individuals digging out business plans put aside years ago, finding skills they didn’t know they had; discovering ways to balance work and life that employers can’t compete with.

It’s not so much of a leap for those who have decided to make a living out of something they already enjoy outside of work, turning a hobby, interest or a even a bugbear into a business. Last March, Hayley Chalmers turned her perpetual search for decent work clothes to fit her 5ft 1in frame into Short Couture, designing, manufacturing and selling these very products online. Redundancy from her IT management job drew her to dusting off the business plan she’d drawn up five years before but, with no fashion industry knowledge, found too daunting to pursue at the time. Now she thinks life is better outside the corporate world. “Years in big firms gave me experience in so many business disciplines, which is a real help now. But it took me too many years to realise I don’t really fit in at large corporates. They don’t like people who question things,” she says.

“Though I’d always wanted my own business I didn’t know exactly what, but I’d reached a point where that world was no longer for me. I’ve worked for too many ladder-climbers that don’t care about doing things well.”

Last autumn, Bibiana Tellez-Garside turned what she knew – a career in marketing and the saleable beauty of her home country – into specialist Bolivian travel agency High Lives, taking a part-time marketing job elsewhere while she establishes the business.

In August 2009, York-based events management specialist Sophie Jewett set up the chocolate-making business she’d wanted to have, Little Pretty Things (and last year, the York Cocoa House) for many years.

Tellez-Garside’s and Jewett’s launches were the product of much preparation while still in employment, in jobs specifically chosen because they allowed more time to focus on other things. Tellez-Garside left a large financial publisher for a small marketing consultancy last April, to start work on her business plan. She was laid off less than a year into the job, seeing it as a chance to focus on High Lives.

Jewett moved from a catering job on 70 hours a week into a more nine-to-five events management role for a university, but resigned in May 2010 before redundancy hit her department. “I started off doing some activities while I was still working just to see how they went, easing myself into having my own business,” she says. “By the time I left I had been running it for one year, having to turn opportunities away because the day job was getting in the way.” Both turned their existing contacts into business.

Much has been said about women bearing the brunt of mass job shedding. But a picture of the working world is emerging that reveals a culture still essentially hostile to family life, which still seems to plague women more than men.

In February, Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, tweeted a chart that showed employment rates for the UK among women with children compared to women without. The rate for women with dependants between 2008-09, was 78%; without dependants, it was 65%. “Look what can happen to female employment rates when childcare costs are very high,” Pearce says.

Robert Half’s UK managing director, Phil Sheridan, says companies risk losing their “star employees” if they don’t provide “help with balancing work and their personal lives”. The recruiter suggests companies offer flexible working – but only as “a strategy best reserved for top performers”. The problem getting women into board-level or other top roles in business is well documented, so it seems unlikely that many women will qualify for these rewards.

Laura Rigney turned that problem into her motivation for becoming self-employed and into her business model, founding in 2010. It offers events, advice and support for mothers thinking of becoming self-employed. “I was employed until I had my third child and going back to it just wasn’t an option. The cost of childcare would completely suck up all my wages,” she says.

When a mum starts a business, nine times out of 10 she will start it when she is on maternity leave, Rigney says. She adds that mums tend to grow it slowly while their children are young. By year four of the business, with children at school and more time available, it hits a growth spurt. That’s one reason, she thinks, why women-owned startups often find it impossible to secure bank loans, growing too slowly to provide the financials bank managers want to see.

Though parents of children aged 16 or younger have the legal right to request flexible working, says employees can be reluctant to ask if it runs “counter to a dominant long-hours culture”, to the extent that they’d rather leave the company than raise the issue.

The promise of flexible working is a myth to many. “Companies talk about it, but in reality the number of flexible working opportunities is tiny,” says Rigney. “Ten years ago, mothers were the preferred employee; we were considered a safe bet. But now around 70% of British companies prefer not to hire a mum because of the potential for additional maternity leave or time off for sick children.”

Her business is growing as more working mothers choose self-employment, with Mumpreneur’s fourth annual conference expecting double the delegates of its launch event, a national roadshow in the pipeline and daily requests for regional events. Eight in 10 delegates she surveyed at The Baby Show event in October 2011 wanted to start their own business within six months. Her punters won’t have to beg their managers for the right to fit their work around feeding times, school runs and parent-teacher meetings. “It’s not the easy choice, but it’s the more workable,” Rigney says.

A regular salary is a compelling comfort blanket when you’ve spent the working day “managing expectations”, battling with bureaucracy and giving away good ideas. But for many it’s no longer enough of a trade off. “Regular pay is no compensation for not being allowed to do a job well,” says Short Couture’s Chalmers.

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