Articles - 5th June 2020

In defence of the freelance Jack of all trades

Words by Maya Witters
Illustration by Jon McCormack

“Find your niche as soon as possible, and then stick with it.” This is probably the most common piece of advice offered to freelancers who are just starting out. But is it really universally good advice? As a certified Jill-of-all-trades who breaks out a sweat at the mere thought of doing the same thing my whole career long, I’m interested to find out why being a generalist is often frowned upon in freelancing.

First, it’s worth looking at why people get told to specialise in one area. “I think part of it is a certain mentality that dates back to the Industrial Revolution,” says Career Mentor Liz Grof. “Historically people have done one job all their lives. Plus, from a recruitment perspective it’s easier to pigeonhole people and define them by a job title – even if that inaccurately describes their skills.”

As an employer, hiring a freelancer who is an expert in their field may seem like a safer bet than hiring a generalist. “Employers might also question a person’s commitment: why can’t you stick to one thing? Women especially often get told to stay in their lane, so there might also be a gender element at play.”

Sticking to a niche certainly comes with benefits, especially when marketing yourself. “Becoming a super-niche specialist is the best thing I’ve ever done,” attests Victoria Moffatt, MD of LexRex Communications Ltd. “Specialising has the benefit of helping you to be really clear in terms of your own branding. If you are a generalist, everyone is your competition.”

There’s also a sense that, while employees who move up the ‘traditional’ career ladder to managerial level have to broaden their skills as they progress, for freelancers the only way to land in a higher pay bracket is by deepening their expertise.

Yet many freelancers at the start of their career, especially those who are still building up a portfolio, have financial reasons not to specialise: they need to be able to take on whatever work they can get. In fact, apart from a personal preference for variety, financial necessity appears to be the main reason why freelancers diversify their skillset.

“I’m an actor, photographer, brand ambassador and freelance administrator,” explains Guy Wah. “I’d love to settle into one career, but they’re all so inconsistent that I have no choice but to take the work that comes up, in whichever field that may be.” Especially in the creative sector, the chances of finding regular, well paid work are often so slim that diversifying is the only option freelancers have.

That brings us to one of the benefits of not specialising: more income security through diversified revenue streams. If there is one thing the coronavirus crisis has taught us, it’s that even seemingly well-established industries can go up in smoke in the blink of an eye. One of my own major clients until recently was an in-flight magazine – I count myself lucky that I don’t exclusively write for the travel sector.

In times like these, hiring freelancers with a wide skillset can also be more attractive to clients. “Usually I think of my niche-less state as a drawback when it comes to marketing, but in the present circumstances I think it’s a bonus that I can be adaptable,” explains writer, marketing strategist and PR consultant Mary Whitehouse.

“The job market will look very different post-Covid-19,” concurs Career Mentor Grof. “Some jobs might not exist anymore, and in some sectors there won’t be as much work. And in general, the job market has undergone major changes in the past decade or so. Technology is forcing us all to adapt, so having a flexible skillset and a willingness to learn are becoming more important.”

In some cases, having a broad skillset also means that you can upsell a client. “I’ve had clients hire me for a specific job, but then ‘promote’ me to take over their entire marketing after pitching ideas on a few occasions,” says Whitehouse.

And while being an expert in a certain field can certainly make corporate networking easier – I admit that people have probably forgotten half of my job titles by the time I’m finished listing them all – being a generalist often means that informal networks can work harder for you. Most of my Facebook friends will have run into someone who needs some proofreading done on occasion; if I were to ask my friend network to refer me to, say, B2B clients in the automotive sector, I would likely come up blank.

For me though, being a generalist is ultimately a form of creative licence in my day-to-day life. Working in different skillsets, writing about different topics and using multiple languages keeps my brain happy and engaged – and I’m not the only one. “Being a generalist keeps me interested every single day. I am learning about new businesses in new sectors with new audiences… it’s amazing,” says copywriter Claire Taylor.

It’s also worth questioning whether the distinction between specialist and generalist is a useful one to begin with. It seems more likely that they are two ends of a continuum, on which a freelancer might shift back and forth with every job they take on. Some freelancers might be specialised in a certain skill but apply it to many sectors; others might have a niche sector that they provide a range of services to.

“Ultimately, a lot of your choices will come down to what success means to you personally,” concludes Grof. “Career progression in the stereotypical sense often simply does not apply for freelancers. People might measure their success not in monetary worth or seniority, but in terms of personal development, the variety of people they get to work with, … Just remember that your strengths come from a skillset, not from a job title someone else imposes on you – no matter what you choose in your career.”

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