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Is the booming freelance economy a threat to AEC firms?

By shifting the work (and revenue) to freelancers, “platform capitalism” startups have taken considerable market share from traditional businesses.

February 24, 2016 |
David Barista

As illustrated by Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber, the budding sharing economy has the power to upend time-honored business models in dramatic fashion, using nothing more than the Web to link supply with demand. In doing so, these startups have spawned a booming market for freelancers and independent service providers.

By shifting the work (and revenue) to freelancers, these so-called “platform capitalism” startups have taken considerable market share from traditional businesses. They’ve also, in some cases, impacted the talent pool, as a growing percentage of the workforce chooses a freelance lifestyle over joining corporate America. Could the same scenario happen to AEC firms?

Absolutely, says Marcus Morrell, Senior Analyst with Arup’s Foresight + Research + Innovation team. In a recent blog post (, Morrell points to evidence that suggests it is already occurring in the professional services industry. The startup Upwork specializes in linking companies with freelance accountants, consultants, lawyers, and, yes, even architects and engineers. Add up all the work that flowed through Upwork last year—more than three million jobs worth some $1 billion in fees—and the tech firm would be considered among the world giants in professional services.

Every one of Eden McCallum’s 500 senior-level management consultants works on a freelance basis, and Arup itself depends on a significant number of independent contractors—8% of Arup’s 4,620 U.K.-based staff are freelancers, up from 5% in 2011, says Morrell.

By 2020, freelancers are expected to make up half of the U.S. workforce, up from roughly 33% today, according to Forbes. And, increasingly, college students view freelance as an attractive, gainful career path. Morrell cited a study ( where 87% of students said they considered freelance “highly attractive.”

“Firms that stick doggedly to traditional models could find themselves losing market share, as they are repeatedly undercut on price,” wrote Morrell. They also could lose out on top talent—not just to the competition, but to the freelance market.

AEC firms must embrace this trend, using freelancers where it makes most sense, while at the same time strengthening benefits, training, opportunities, and job security to help recruit and retain the best and brightest.

David Barista | BD+C Editors
Building Design+Construction
Editorial Director

David Barista is Editorial Director of Building Design+Construction and, properties that combined reach more than 100,000 commercial building professionals, including architects, engineers, contractors, and building owners. David has covered the U.S. construction industry for more than a decade, previously serving as Editor-in-Chief of BD+C, Professional Builder, Custom Builder, and He has won numerous editorial awards, including six Jesse H. Neal Awards and multiple honors from the Construction Writers Association and the American Society of Business Publication Editors.


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