Small Biz Bites Blog: The Age of the Contractor

Publication: The New York Times
January 15, 2008

This is the age of outsourcing. Companies outsource website design, homeowners outsource patching the roof, and throughout the economy independent contractors wrestle with issues of branding, warding off bigger competition, and trying to grow good ideas into big businesses.Suddenly, contingent, on demand, flexible workforces – contract labor that is available to solve urgent issues – is what cost-conscious organizations crave. One irony: many contracting jobs now are among the best because, simply put, cleaning up a flooded basement cannot be subcontracted to Bangalore, India. That said, however, significant profits continue to be made by cleverly riding the offshoring wave, where work shifts to lower-wage labor markets and companies unafraid of distance cut costs, sometimes with no lessening of work quality.

The reality is that in today’s economy, just what and who is involved in contracting is fast morphing but the good news for entrepreneurs is that there are potentially big profits to be had by thinking far ahead.

Cases in point:

Again and Again

Is a 60 year-old chemist washed up? Day in, day out, Indianapolis-based proves the absurdity of that. On one hand, YourEncore CEO Brad Lawson has lined up a blue-chip roster of client companies – Procter & Gamble, Eli Lilly, and Boeing among them – and on the other hand he has located close to 4000 retired technical professionals (chemists, engineers, computer scientists) and the building block idea is that these retirees do not want fulltime employment, but would they be turned on with the chance to join a high-energy team helping a major company solve a key problem? You bet they would be, and since October, 2003, YourEncore – founded with prompting by P & G and Eli Lilly, says Lawson – has taken on hundreds of assignments, often on short notice. For instance, when Hurricane Katrina knocked out a major coffee plant and nobody had a template for getting back into production, YourEncore pulled together a team that – inside 48 hours – was on the ground in Louisiana. “We had six, sometimes eight people who worked three months down there,” says Lawson.

YourEncore’s sweet spot is retirees who are in their late fifties into their late sixties – “but we have some who are well into their eighties,” interjects Lawson – and the attraction goes beyond the money they are paid. For many, it’s about doing important, interesting work but doing it on their own terms (perhaps four hour days, or maybe it is working three days a week). “At any given time we have around 300 individuals working on assignments,” says Lawson, who says that the companies that use YourEncore are particularly drawn to the depth of longitudinal knowledge of these retirees. They not only know what is new in, say, polymer chemistry but they remember when this was a newer field and, sometimes, that in-depth insight is exactly what is needed to solve a knotty problem that, so far, has stymied the regular work force. “Our people want to contribute at a high level and that is exactly what the assignments we take on let them do,” says Lawson.

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