“Wow, I wish I could do that. You’re so lucky”.
Last year I was having a coffee meeting with a former student of mine. He had managed to wrangle an hour away his global brand name employer this warm Tuesday afternoon, and we were mid-espresso in one of my favourite city cafes.
I’d just finished giving him a brief history of how I had ended up working as a freelance/independent engineer and consultant. From his vantage point, as a new(ish) graduate engineer in a large global firm, I’m guessing it sounded like what I do sound glamorous or difficult - though I have never thought of my situation that way.
Out of work
I commenced work as an independent freelancer in early 2014, though at the time I didn’t know it. Until the end of 2013 I had been a senior engineer at HRL Technology, a technical consulting business, working as a senior greenhouse gas and energy consultant. Most of our projects were for large thermal power stations (coal or gas) with a smattering of other large energy using businesses amongst them.
I had worked there for over four years. Then, in 2013, a change of government saw the repeal of most of the emissions-reduction and energy efficiency legislation upon which my team built much of its work. Demand for our services dropped precipitously. The team had to shrink. I was given a nerve-wracking opportunity to compete for my job in a spill-and-fill process. A few days, near Christmas in 2013, I was told I was not successful.
For the first time in my professional career, I was out of work. The job market for environmental / chemical engineers was dreadful. My wife had just enrolled in a Masters. We had two boys, the youngest still a baby. If I couldn’t find an income, it would start to have a significant impact not only on me but on the whole family.
I started my search for another job. It would end up having an impact the whole family. And it would end up changing my thinking about work, career and how I deal with adversity.
The job search begins
My job loss coincided with the Australian Christmas/summer period. As much of the country goes on holidays, there is a reduced level of business activity, and very little hiring is going on. Fortunately I received a redundancy payment of around 3 months’ salary. With some belt tightening, we would be able to go for 4-5 months without any income.
Nevertheless, I worked most days on applying for advertised jobs, contacting people across my network, and building my presence on LinkedIn and elsewhere. The more people I spoke to, the more worried I became. The government’s changes to the environmental laws didn’t just affect me - they affected every business working with or in environmental consulting.
I also attended some sessions at a job placement service in early 2014, paid for by HRL as part of my redundancy. I found little value in these - at that time I was almost 40 and knew how to look someone in the eye in an interview and how to write a CV. I received a phone call from HRL asking about my experience with the job placement people. I was rather abrupt during this call - HRL were not in my good graces at the time (sorry Sue!). This was a sign that my emotional state really wasn’t great. It would be quite a while before I regained some control over my emotional state.
There was one bright spark in all this gloom - I did in fact have a part-time job. Since 2011 I had been employed at Monash University to run their chemical engineering unit “Sustainable Processing 1”. This was a compulsory unit for all third-year chemical engineering students. It was at the perfect intersection of chemical/process engineering and sustainable development. And it only required me on-campus one day per week to give lectures, with the rest of my work done remotely.
The trouble was the work at Monash only ran during first semester each year (late February to late May). As it was on a casual basis, I only received income during semester. And of course, being a part-time position, it did not pay anything like a full-time wage.
I still hadn’t found a job by March, and we’d already drained our bank account for several months by that point without any income. The Monash income was very gratefully received when it did start to flow, but it certainly wasn’t enough to keep our bank balance from falling.
So I kept looking. Between December 2013 and April 2014 I had two job interviews, one of which was with Melbourne Water. The job description was a little outside my experience base but I thought it was worth a shot. Two minutes into the interview and I realised I shouldn’t have been there. The position had been advertised as an environmental compliance role with some contract management. But all the questions were about my contract management experience - which I don’t have! Seems the person who wrote the job ad emphasised all the wrong aspects, and I suspect I was asked to be there to make up the numbers. I told them as much and we cut the interview short. One of the hiring managers apologised for wasting my time, which was decent of him. I just chalked that up to experience - I was going to have to kiss some frogs on this job search journey.
In May 2014, a recruiter helped me get an interview at a boutique energy consulting firm. This was more promising. They were looking for someone with environmental expertise but who understood the power sector. My first interview with a principal engineer went well, and I was invited to meet the firm’s owner on his next trip to Melbourne. We met and the interview seemed to go very well. I spoke to the recruiter on the phone that afternoon, and he relayed the positive comments he’d received from the firm’s owner. I was becoming hopeful.
Then… nothing. Radio silence. After a few days I tried calling the owner but kept getting his voicemail. This went on for a couple of weeks. My hopes had pretty much been dashed at that point. My fears were confirmed eventually. The recruiter called me to explain the situation.
On the day of my interview with the owner, the Federal Government released its 2014 budget. This has since become notorious for its spectacular cuts to government spending. Apparently this spooked the owner, who feared business spending would diminish and he wouldn’t be able to afford an extra person.
Damn it! I was battered. The government’s policies had cost me my old role at HRL, and now their budget had cost me a chance at this new firm. No prizes for what I think of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. But what can you do? I picked myself up and continued the search.
Freelancing during the job search
As part of my search, I had been reaching out to all my former consulting clients from my time at HRL. Although none were hiring, I did manage to finally get some consulting and carbon audit project work. I did these under contract, not as an employee. These included a carbon uncertainty project with Peabody Energy (thanks Alex and Sam!), some audit work with Carbon Intelligence (thanks Andrew!) and some subcontracting work with NDEVR Environmental (thanks Matt!). Later in the year I also landed a short-term contract with AGL (thanks Travis!). I landed some casual work at Melbourne University’s Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering (thanks Paul), assisting their students in their final-year design project.
I was pleasantly surprised to find I could earn very nice rates of pay for my freelance work. Essentially I could charge a substantial fraction of my former consulting rate from my time at HRL, but without their overheads most of the income went directly to me. This was a revelation and a key point for anyone considering freelancing - always charge in competition with the market for business services in your field, not with the hourly salaries of the people who work for them.
I also had some failures. Through an acquaintance I was referred for some work in Asia, looking at carbon capture and storage opportunities in China. This went very close to being approved, with the proponent cancelling at the very last minute for unknown reasons. My counterparts in Singapore were baffled by this. After putting a lot of time and heart into that opportunity, this was a blow.
I also had a draft contract drawn up at a local power station to help them with their Energy Efficiency Opportunities work (a government scheme for heavy industry). And wouldn’t you know it, my best friends in the federal government cancelled the EEO program, just as I was to get the contract signed. Gutted again.
From the time of my redundancy in December 2013, through my failures to secure work through 2014, my emotions were put through the ringer. I kept a journal throughout my period of unemployment, and reading it now is really hard. I felt a crushing amount of shame. Shame that I couldn’t hold on to my old job during the competitive spill-and-fill. Shame that I couldn’t support my family and that we were all going without. Shame that we were relying on government support and support from my parents - things I hadn’t ever needed since starting my career. And shame in my failure to get us out of the hole we were in.
There was anger too. Anger at my former employer and how hard done by I felt. Anger at the government for seeming to trip me up every time I tried to make some progress. Anger at myself for the choices I’d made to move away from chemical/process engineering and into environmental/energy engineering.
Anxiety was probably the most persistent emotion though. Not just worry about money, although that was ever present. I was also anxious to hold on to the small amount of work I did have. This was brought to a head in a rather unpleasant way at the end of my teaching semester at Monash that year. There was an accusation on the part of one of my teaching colleagues against another teaching colleague regarding alleged unprofessional conduct. Although I didn’t have anything directly to do with it, as unit coordinator I had to repeatedly deal with the problem with the Head of Department. I was so worried that this would reflect badly on me that I would lose the one source of income I had. I often kept my thoughts on the situation private because I didn’t want to rock the boat.
Eventually the issue was settled but I realised that anxiety definitely made me less of a professional. Fear meant that I wasn’t prepared to speak my mind and I was keeping my thoughts to myself, when speaking up would have been the most productive and useful thing at that time. My general sense of insecurity was greatly increased by having to confront people who had influence over my future income. I learnt a valuable lesson at that point. I didn’t want to be in a situation again where any single person or organisation could hold such a position of power over me.
Thinking back over this period, it was a period of significant emotional stress. But in hindsight I believe it acted like a forge. The stress and pressure helped to strengthen me emotionally. My experiences of failure during this time helped me learn that I could get through it and survive, even thrive. My wife Nicole was a rock for me during that year. She helped call me out on my bullshit when I was being pessimistic. And she celebrated with me when I had my little successes throughout the year. We definitely became even closer by the time that year was done. I’m very lucky to have her.
Steadying the ship
This freelance work was obviously very important for us financially - it helped to finally steady our finances after watching our bank balance fall throughout the first half of 2014.
As 2014 drew to a close, I finally had a breakthrough on the jobs front. NDEVR Environmental, after a couple of interviews, offered me a role as a technical consultant in their team. I also received at the same time a similar offer from Carbon Intelligence. I ended up taking the offer from Carbon Intelligence. NDEVR are a great team, but Carbon Intelligence were offering a bit more money, and at the time this was very much front of my mind.
Interestingly, both job offers offered substantially less than the salary I’d earned at HRL 12 months earlier (approximately 25% less). This was a clear sign to me that the market demand for my skills had cooled significantly. It was also striking in that the rates of pay I’d been earning as a freelancer suddenly made the full-time salary look much less attractive than it had previously.
Should I stay or should I go?
I started my new role with Carbon Intelligence in early 2015. I worked primarily from home - they work as a distributed team - and I was pleased to be back earning a regular income.
But after a few months I started to become restless. My experience of having worked as an independent consultant in 2014 had opened up a whole new way of working and interacting with those from whom I derive my income. I was able to blend my skills by doing different types of work for different clients - university lecturing one day, carbon audit the next, engineering the day after. This was something I’d not been able to get from any single full-time position - most of which are defined functionally and don’t allow for that kind of flexibility.
I was tempted to launch back into independent freelance consulting. But it took me a few weeks, and more than a few discussions with my wife Nicole, before we made the decision together.
So, after around 6 months of full-time work, I informed my boss at Carbon Intelligence that I would be leaving to work independently and that I’d be happy to continue to work with him from outside his firm if he agreed to work with me. I’m pleased to say that Carbon Intelligence have repeatedly used my services since then.
So, do I feel lucky?
Back to that statement by my former student; “you’re so lucky”.
I do feel a degree of luck, sure. But it’s tempered by the thoughts of the year we went through on the way here. But if I’d never been through that experience, I doubt I would have ever had the courage to leave a full-time job to work this way.
But you don’t have to be lucky. What I do is something that could be done by many professionals. With the growth of computing and the internet, and the disintermediation of so many services, there is an ever growing need for services in bite-sized pieces - these are services that freelancers are very well placed to provide.
Personally, freelancing gives me much more time with my wife and kids. I’m able to schedule my days around my family commitments. I mostly work from home, so I don’t burn hours of my weeks in commuting anymore. And working through my own company has significant tax advantages over traditional salaried employment.
I suspect there will be a slow but steady growth in people like me - Freelance Professionals - as the modern economy evolves into the 21st century.