unemployment

America's under-valued workers

March 26, 2014: 3:22 PM ET

With the growth of freelancers and contract workers, the government needs to de-emphasize its focus on full-time jobs.

By Sophie Wade

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FORTUNE -- Are you an independent contractor, a new entrepreneur, or doing consulting work as you re-enter the labor force after a hiatus or having been laid off? The reality is, unless you have a "traditional" career with a standard 40-hour workweek, or work consistent and continuous weekly hours, your contributions are often not accurately reflected in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) monthly employment data.

The only hours counted are those worked during a specific week of the month that BLS gathers for its survey. So, if you are a busy freelancer, but with irregular hours worked week to week, you might often be classified as a part-timer or, if caught between projects, unemployed. If you are relaunching your career, you likely figure in the footnotes as "marginally attached to the labor force."

Why should this matter?

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The health of the U.S. economy is judged each month partially based on the much-anticipated employment statistics. Countless decisions are based upon this data -- not just short-term stock market transactions, but the numbers and forecasts can be key factors influencing important government policies. The problem is that critical decisions are focused on the full-time job statistics nationwide, when a significant and fast-growing pool of the nation's workforce is freelancers and independent contractors: Intuit's 2020 Report projects 40% of the U.S. workforce will fall into such a category by 2020. Already, the Freelancers Union estimates there are 42 million U.S. freelancers (approximately 30% of the labor force). And MBO Partners reports independent contractors generated 1.2 trillion in 2013 income, up 20% from 2012.

The contributions and needs of this increasingly significant segment of the labor force must be included in development of important strategies and decisions about government policies. These span high-level goals, such as reaching "Full Employment," or having every eligible worker employed. It also includes labor laws, health care and pension plans, or Federal Reserve policies deciding on financial liquidity and small businesses' ability to get credit. To be sure, the Affordable Care Act did take an important step toward disconnecting health coverage from full-time jobs. However, much more needs to be done to create a framework to facilitate and support the independent workforce.

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So, let's focus on hours, not jobs.

We should emphasize and monitor average hours worked per surveyed week (e.g. a trailing average of hours worked over the previous four weeks), not focusing on any cut-off definitions above or below a specific number of hours. Wouldn't this be a more encompassing way of monitoring and judging productive contributions to the economy?

Might this challenge our work ethics as well as our metrics? It could appear to some as though the government were encouraging laziness by de-emphasizing full-time jobs. Some people will not work any less, their contributions will just be fully recognized. For others, we can focus on the decreased health care costs resulting from reduced stress and workloads.

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Plus, if some current labor hours were reduced to spend on other productive non-corporate activities, this approach could possibly facilitate a beneficial redistribution of hours bringing additional people (back) into the workforce to pick up the slack in project work.

We can maximize our opportunities and potential when we start looking forward not back, and recognizing all the work contributions and profiles of this hardworking nation.

Sophie Wade is founder and CEO of Flexcel Network, LLC, which provides flex-focused placement services focused on entrepreneurs and growth companies. She writes and speaks regularly about flexible work and employment issues. Sophie has an MA from Oxford University in Chinese and an MBA from INSEAD.

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