John Vensel is a contract attorney at Orrick who grew up a few miles from Wheeling, on the other side of the Pennsylvania state line. In his 20s, he was a freelance paralegal by day and a gig musician by night.
"I actually wanted to be a rock star," he says. But these days there are no edgy vestiges of a former rocker, only a 47-year-old family man cooing over cellphone photos of his children, Grace and Gabe.
In the two decades in between, Vensel worked full-time corporate jobs. But he was laid off in 2010, on the eve of his graduation from his night-school law program. He graduated with huge piles of debt, into one of the worst job markets.
"It was terrible; it was like a nuclear bomb went off," he says. "My son had just been born. ... We've been kind of recovering ever since."
For a time, Vensel commuted three hours round-trip to a full-time job in Pittsburgh. But more recently, he quit and took up contracting to stay near home in Wheeling.
"So, like my father, he's in the hospital right now which is like five minutes away, and I'm getting updates on my phone," he explains, glancing at the device. "And if I need to be there, I can be there in five minutes."
He says contract work is today's economic reality. Contracting allows employers to test workers out, he says, but he ultimately is hoping to land a full-time position, with benefits. A new NPR/Marist poll shows that 34 percent of part-time workers are looking for full-time work.
That may be increasingly difficult. Currently, 1 in 5 workers is a contract worker, the poll shows. According to economists Alan Krueger and Lawrence Katz, the percentage of people engaged in "alternative work arrangements" (freelancers, contractors, on-call workers and temp agency workers) grew from 10.1 percent in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015. Their report found that almost all — or 94 percent — of net jobs created from 2005 to 2015 were these sorts of impermanent jobs.
Within a decade, many labor economists believe freelancers will outnumber full timers.
Vensel draws a contrast with his father, who retired after working 35 years at the Postal Service.
"He has a pension; we don't have pensions anymore," Vensel says. "It's a totally different world."
Sixty-five percent of part-time workers and a little more than half of contract workers work without benefits, according to the NPR/Marist poll.
Arun Sundararajan, a management professor at New York University and author of The Sharing Economy, says "this is the work arrangement for the future." The new normal will be freelance work. "Twenty years from now, I don't think a typical college graduate is going to expect that full-time employment is their path to building a career," Sundararajan says.
He says that will ultimately lead to many other changes, from education to social structures and public services.
That's going to cause major changes as high-paying jobs turn into contract gigs: lawyers, network engineers, doctors, professors, upper managment and more. That's where we're heading, and the national conversation about automation, benefits, and contract work is one we need to have now, not later.