"The defining characteristic of the 21st century will be the competition for intellectual capital," says Freelancer.com CEO and founder Matt Barrie.
When online workplace Freelancer.com (ASX: FLN) was founded in 2009 most of its customers were outsourcing small projects worth $50 or $100 each in areas such as web design, copywriting, graphic design, data entry and translation.
In just over a decade this innovation that found its roots with SMEs has evolved into a behemoth platform where 51 million people make a living, helping businesses including Fortune 500 companies find talent globally with 85 per cent of projects contracted cross-border and 68 per cent bid upon within a minute.
To put Freelancer's impact on the global labour market into perspective, the world's largest private employer Walmart has 2.3 million 'associates' on its books, and Amazon's number of employees is around half that number. Australia's largest jobs listings site SEEK (ASX: SEK) had more than 45 million job candidates on its Asia Pacific & Americas websites last year.
"Over time bigger and bigger businesses started to use us, the tools got better, the human-computer interaction got better, our software got better, you could do more sophisticated things online, and now it's filtered up to large enterprises," Freelancer.com CEO and founder Matt Barrie tells Business News Australia.
"And large enterprises have a desperate need for talent."
A blue sky vision over the cloud
Barrie explains the trend of cloud-based employment has led to a democratisation of the jobs market, with the pandemic serving as the "Pandora's Box" that opened up businesses and professionals to the idea of working and hiring online, making the step-change permanent.
With its fundamental drivers accelerated by COVID-19, Freelancer.com reported a record gross payment volume of $249.7 million in the March quarter, representing an 18.8 per cent lift year-on-year, although in USD terms the growth rate was more than double that.
"The big picture is we are the world's largest online workforce. We have 51 million people in our workforce, we just hit 20 million projects in the last 24 hours and there is no other workforce that comes even close by an order of magnitude," the executive explains.
"We are in every country where there's electricity, internet and we're able to legally operate, and we have over 2,000 skillsets and we cater from consumer right up to large companies."
Barrie explains three main causes for the platform's rapid rise over the past year: people going online to look for work because their industry is shut down or damaged; businesses are looking to cut costs and find talent more efficiently; and startups are popping up and using new technologies to find their human capital.
"At Fortune 500 and globally significant organisations of that stature, universally C-suite tells us this directly that in the future some percentage of their workforce will come from the cloud," he says.
"They don't know if it's going to be 5, 10, 25 or 50 per cent, or if it's going to be in three, five or 10 years, but it's about in that range and COVID has accelerated everything. In the future, some part of their workforce permanently will be virtual."
Freelancer.com is not just tapping into this shift through its service, but is actually embedding its technology into some large multinational partners so they can find the right expertise for jobs within their own organisations.
This is the case for the Deloitte MyGigs portal Freelancer.com developed, with Barrie claiming the US-based Big Four accounting firm aims to get 20 per cent of its workforce using the service.
"We help Deloitte get internal efficiency by helping their consultants hire other consultants within Deloitte. So if you're in the London office and you want to work with someone in the New York office, you can do that," he says.
"We've got 22,000 consultants on that platform ramping to 50,000 as we speak, and over 100,000 hours of work has been put through."
The group is in the process of activating another function for Deloitte MyGigs that will give the group access to Freelancer's 51 million-strong workforce, organised into talent networks with various skills, ratings, and enterprise qualities that have been vetted.
"The third thing we're going to do is get Deloitte customers and our customers, Fortune 500 organisations from around the world, to benefit from this by going hand in hand with Deloitte to transform their workforces. That's the blue sky with all this relationship," Barrie explains.
"Likewise we're doing things with other great partners around the world, for example with IBM, Airbus, Novo Nordisk, Unilever, you name it. This trend is not going away.
"The defining characteristic of the 21st century will be the competition for intellectual capital."
Cloud-based work outlook for Australia
Where does Australia fit into this puzzle?
As far as Freelancer.com is concerned, the statistics show that Australians - like professionals in most markets - are more likely to be doing a project via the platform with an overseas company than a local one, and Australian companies are finding wage arbitrage opportunities in emerging markets with strong educational credentials and English proficiency such as the Philippines and India.
"As you get more experience with the platform and you're experienced hiring people online, you're more likely to hire someone from the emerging market and you're more likely to pay them more over time when you've had a great experience," Barrie explains.
"Australians tend to have higher niche skills. We've got a reasonably good educational system although I don't think we're keeping up on the world stage."
He says Australians tend to thrive in an area where a critical skillset is required.
"If you've got higher education, domain experience, industry relationships, creative thinking, strategic thinking or something extra you bring to the job - great customer service, whatever it may be - that increases your earnings and your propensity to be hired.
"Australians are pretty much top of the pack there."
Nonetheless, Barrie, having been an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney for 14 years, is critical of Australia's education system and the lack of PhDs produced in engineering and computer sciences.
"We have a problem that we just don't have enough skills in the country to be able to service the jobs we have. We have got to get the skills up to be doing higher paid jobs, and that will help grow a whole bunch of industries - technology, software, and so forth," the Freelancer.com founder explains.
"To maintain our standard of living and high wages, we need to be producing higher-margin, higher-value products and services.
"One of the fastest ways to improve the economy is retraining and skilling up, because education is a lubricant for social mobility."
While universities have depended heavily on international students, Barrie believes there needs to be a refocus on domestic students to ensure Australia has the skills needed for the future. That pivot would require better outreach and interaction with the schooling system to make children aware of the opportunities out there.
"Every young kid would love to work on self-driving cars, the next Facebook, the next Instagram, work on SpaceX, all sorts of crazy things, but they can't connect the dots between what they're taught in school and their career," Barrie says.
"And if you don't get to the students by year 10, they don't know what to do. They pick their subjects according to a leaderboard which has been designed by a UAI (Universities Admission Index), and the students are indoctrinated that the top professions are law and medicine.
"We've really got to fix this. And it's something that can really improve the economy really dramatically in a very short period of time. Young kids are already interested in this, they'd love to do it and they've got the aptitude to enter these careers - all you got to do is provide a career path to them and get it into their heads."
The executive also believes online learning has a major role to play in Australia's upskilling efforts.
"I've been doing a course in mining engineering because I'm interested in investing in mining companies. I've been learning Chinese online, so I think it's phenomenal not just that education's online now, but the world of work is online.
"Let's say you always wanted to be a graphic designer or you want to be a programmer. You can educate yourself part-time online almost for free, or free, and you can tip-toe into it with a couple of hours a week on a small project, see if you like, build your skills up, maybe get to working on weekends, and eventually you can have the courage to jump into more formal education programs online.
"There are a lot more opportunities now than there were 20 years ago."
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