Four reasons independent consultants are happy with their career choice

20 February 2018

A growing body of evidence has added substantial weight to the assertion that independent consultants are happier than their salaried counterparts. New research from independent professional services matchmaking platform Comatch has found that the majority of freelance consultants not only enjoy life more than when they were part of firms, but actually earn a larger wage.

Last year, Office for National Statistics cited the growing ‘gig-economy’ as the primary driver for falling unemployment, which hit a 42-year low in May 2017 – but the increase in freelance work across all sectors has also been cited by critics as increasing the precarious nature of employment in many jobs, while keeping wages low. Unlike other freelancer fields, however, consulting professionals remain well-paid, and often happier than their fully employed equivalents. In 2017, research from independent professional services network Odgers Connect subsequently found that the majority of freelance consultants have no intent to return to full-time employment.

Now, a new study has seen Comatch poll 430 independent consultants from 22 different countries – the largest such study in Europe – to assess their satisfaction. Of the 430 respondents, 15% were laid off by their last employer, while two-thirds of the sample, or 67%, quit their last job deliberately to better realise their individual ambitions.

The research began by looking into why consultants would want to leave the security of well-paid job and take the substantial risk of going it alone. Analysts found four major motives for this decision. Independents being at liberty to select topics as well as projects, as well as determining when and how long engagements should take, and as with whom they work, all topped the list of reasons given.

Motivation to work as an independent consultant

1. Freedom

Ultimately, all four reasons for going independent boil down to matters of freedom. However, specifically, the freedom to pick a client rather than to be assigned them is a major drive for freelancers. At firms, partners typically decide what project consultants work with. This responsibility could be viewed as added pressure for some. However, the added obligation seems to be one which does not trouble those electing self-employed life. Overall, a majority of 58% in the sample state to have more responsibility than when employed – part of a life that now encompasses a much more entrepreneurial attitude.

Of responses given, one respondent was quoted as saying, “I search for more adventure than my previous employer could provide” while another said that while determining clients had added to their responsibilities, they still felt free from pressure. Consultants with companies are expected to deliver perpetually, including meeting sales targets. “I wanted to get rid of unrealistic sales targets,” said an independent who was surveyed.

The nature of having to sink or swim on the back of an individual’s own merits might worry self-employed professionals in a multitude of industries. However, further to the ability for freelancers to pick and choose their hours and clients, it could also prove to be a good career decision because clients are becoming increasingly willing to work with independents – adding an additional benefit of job security to the freedom they enjoy.

A majority of independent consultants are happier or as happy as before

2. Work-life

Following from this, European independents felt their work-life balance had improved since their transition to freelance. A huge majority of 91% of the sample felt happier or as happy as before with their work-life-balance – something replicated across all professional backgrounds. It also did not matter whether individuals left their permanent positions on their own terms or not: even those who were laid off evaluated their work-life-balance as better.

Those who previously worked for a consultancy (97%) or a financial service company (100%) in particular saw improvements in their work-life-balance, most likely due to these fields boasting the highest workloads. Consultants working for themselves, therefore, feel happier due to their freedom to choose their own hours. One member of the sample said, “I became a mother – consulting with kids in a top management consultancy is not possible.”

However, big consulting firms are working hard to change this, and stem the loss of staff – as talent shortages threaten to become a major issue in the near future. Inflexible UK employment practices presently see working mothers lose £1.3 trillion in earnings every year – so consultancies have a major opportunity to set themselves apart, and capitalise on substantial talent resources, which at present are going to waste. Firms are therefore putting policies in place to make themselves more flexible and to enhance their reputations as a great opportunity for working mothers. As a result, Working Mothers magazine last year commended DeloitteEYOliver Wyman and financial services firm UBS AG for their flexibility to accommodate employees with families.

In other studies, a desire to travel less has also been given as an important factor for not working for consulting firms. However, this was less the case in Comatch’s data. One possible explanation is that in Comatch’s sample, 87% of respondents were men, with a potentially easier home situation making travelling less difficult. As a result, travelling in this respective poll came across as something consultants actually like and regard as part of their profession. Management consulting, according to a recent Indeed analysis, is the best job for travel lovers, due to its requirement for consultants to temporarily relocate and advise on projects.

Independent consultants earn more

3. Professional development

Independent consultants were also more likely to have more space for personal development. Freelancers used their new-found freedom to focus on specific expertise, in areas where they have previously worked, and would like to apply their knowledge in. Employees in the broader professional services sector do not often have the chance to specialise in this manner, due to the breadth of their company’s portfolio.

Whether this is the case across every industry in the sector is a matter of debate. More specialised organisations, such as consulting firms, are top education houses, known for their training and development opportunities. However, while coaching chances are in place, a number of other studies have suggested that professional development can be accelerated by learning on job.

Of Comatch’s own sample, only 3% stated they had done nothing specific to stay up to date with their expertise. Nine in every ten meanwhile suggested that learning on the job had fulfilled this criteria. A further 82% said simply reading relevant publications had helped them maintain their industry edge, while direct exchange with peers was cited by 75% as a means to update their expertise – suggesting that while independence does allow for a more individualised working experience, these consultants maintain networks which they can still tap for best practices, avoiding industrial isolation.

Compared to my previous job - I gained responsibility by becoming an independent consultant

4. Earn more

A majority of 58% told researchers that they earn more money as an independent consultant than as an employee. In part, this is likely due to the fact that there is no longer a middleman to tap into the fees incurred by consulting work. With no broader organisation to cream off profits from their labour, freelance consultants are able to take home a larger sum, despite charging comparatively less than an organisation would for the same work.

This is also in part due to the continued prevalence of the gender pay-gap at major organisations. A study from Eden McCallum had previously found that while only 13% of women say they would go back to a big corporate job, nearly one third of men would consider that option – thanks in large part to women surveyed having earned two-thirds of the level of men in their last corporate job, before becoming independent where they began to earning a similar day rate.

On top of this, Comatch’s study shows that moving to independent consulting is particularly attractive for former employees of consultancies. 68% of this group agree on being able to earn more money than they used to. The sole outliers of this trend were independent consultants coming from corporates or SMEs, the majority of whom saw no increase in income. One possible explanation for this anomaly is that 88% of the corporate group and 73% of the SME group are older than 40 (vs. 65% of the group that worked for a consultancy in their last job) and are therefore likely to have reached a high salary before becoming an independent consultant.

Independent consulting: a good decision

All in all, building on the above observations, it is perhaps not surprising that those independent consultants surveyed are happy with their decision. 62% said that they were likely to stay an independent consultant – with just over one fifth saying they would consider returning to permanent employment. Of the minority unhappy with their current lot, 18% said they would return to permanent position in the corporate world, while a meagre 3% said they planned to return to consulting firm life.

The results revealed by Comatch are also in sync with a recent study of Dutch freelancers. Almost nine in every ten freelance consultants in the Netherlands are satisfied with their choice of self-employment. Freelancers are satisfied with both the challenges presented by their work, and with their income – though they are concerned with falling fees.

Related: Six questions for Chris Preston on the rise of independent consultancy.