Jul 29, 2010

A concept that still gets quite a bit talk is this idea of a free agent nation. I remember reading about it in college but the concept was dated even then. When Daniel Pink wrote about it in Fast Company magazine, he said:

But if you go look for it, as I did, you can’t miss it. It’s out there, from coast to coast, and it’s growing every day. The residents of Free Agent, USA are legion: Start with the 14 million self-employed Americans. Consider the 8.3 million Americans who are independent contractors. Factor in the 2.3 million people who find work each day through temporary agencies. Note that in January, the IRS expects to mail out more than 74 million copies of Form 1099-MISC — the pay stub of free agents.

Now this was written at the end of 1997 and since then, we’ve seen what can only be described as modest growth of the concept. The free agent nation hasn’t exploded — yet. But we’ve seen more suggestions that the concept will be one of the ways employers will deal with bringing people back into the workforce. While some see this as a good thing (more freedom, more self-direction), there is also a downside to all of this. Corporate financed training goes away.

What will stay?

Two years ago, I wrote about this concept in my blog. At the time, I directed it at those in Gen Y who wanted to job hop but still wanted all the benefits of tenured professional life. My view was that early career job hopping, while at times beneficial, could also lead to companies eliminating internal and external training that mostly benefits younger professionals.

If we transition to a more contingent workforce though, there won’t be a choice to make.

Sure, companies are still going to offer internal systems training. Those are always going to be necessary. And they may offer training that will benefit them immediately (let’s say training to get a new project going). Or perhaps even a reimbursement model that some organizations have already used for MBA, law or IT-based education. They will reimburse the cost but you have to pay a portion back if you leave.

What will go?

Of course, everyone I’ve worked with in that system hated that. They felt trapped after they’ve done the training rather than appreciative of the company paying for it.

And that’s why, for the most part, that sort of long-term, external training or tuition reimbursement will simply just go away. It will disappear from offer sheets and policy handbooks and then out of the memories of the few people that remembered a time when a company wanted you to develop on their dime.

Now I’ve been with companies that don’t do tuition reimbursement or external training and personally, it doesn’t bother me. But I’ve talked to many folks who have lamented this change and blamed every generation, company, and even unions. There seems to be a lot of concern around the impact this will have on a business culture that is changing from a manufacturing industrial base to a knowledge and service-based workforce.

What’s next?

The timing is good for companies to cut these sorts of programs right now. They can blame the economy for the cuts to the program and then never bring them back again. And then?

Well, that’s up to employees. Do they go back to school on their own dime when they need the education? Do they use education as a tool to move to a different company (instead of a tool to move up in their current company)? Do they become more selective about programs they take? What scares people the most though is what to do if employees don’t do anything at all.

How companies adapt to the free agent nation will have as much to do with their policies as the reactions of current and potential employees.