Freelance Developers and The Tech Talent Shortage

Written by:

Elizabeth Melton

6 min read

These days, it’s hard to avoid technology一even when you’re actively trying. So, as you can imagine, this has skyrocketed demand for tech talent, even in industries that traditionally hadn’t been tech-focused.

The problem is, there isn’t enough supply to keep up. A McKinsey survey reported that 87% of businesses are already seeing a developer shortage or anticipate one in a few years. And demand isn’t slowing down. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that employment in software development will grow “much faster than average” from 2020 to 2030, rising by 22% year over year.

Unfortunately, companies’ short-term “fix” has been to pile work onto existing employees’ plates. Yet doing so eventually drives churn, and organizations end up in even worse shape than they were before.

But there’s another potential solution to the tech shortage that doesn’t cause employee burnout: freelance developers. This piece will explain how the tech talent shortage came to be, several ways to overcome it, and why freelance developers might be the best way to fill the gaps.

What is the tech talent shortage, and how did it arise?

Simply put, the tech talent shortage refers to the lack of qualified candidates to assume technology-based roles.

While tech talent can take on many forms, developers are particularly tough to acquire and retain. Often, software engineers are hired because of their ability to work in a particular language, understand a specific framework, or familiarity with a certain tool一niche skills that computer science graduates don’t necessarily have. The breadth of experience organizations want and need comes with a hefty price tag they may not be able to afford, particularly those in the nonprofit sector.

The need for tech talent was already happening before the pandemic, but COVID-19 accelerated the shortage tremendously. Organizations had to pivot quickly to remote work, meaning they had to support digital infrastructure, bolster their digital security, and start thinking about how technology will continue to play a role in the post-pandemic future. As you can imagine, figuring out how to accomplish all these tasks on top of day-to-day work has made the tech talent companies had hard to keep. Today, 72% of IT workers in the U.S. are thinking of quitting their jobs in the next 12 months.

The downstream effects of the tech talent shortage

The longer developer roles stay vacant, the longer it will take for companies to innovate, test, and deliver new products to their customers. For B2B and B2C companies, this leads to customer frustration, causing lower LTV scores, and ultimately, churn. This pattern only gets accentuated if competitors can beef up their budget and snag tech talent first.

But those companies aren’t the only ones dealing with the fallout of the tech talent shortage. Nonprofits and philanthropies have to compete against all those companies for tech talent, and they simply do not have the funding. Both industries are also significantly further behind in terms of digital transformation, meaning that the projects they offer developers may not be as modern or exciting additions to their resumes. At a high level, this dearth of tech talent only perpetuates the cycle of nonprofits and philanthropies staying behind the curve.

How to overcome the tech shortage

There are several approaches to overcoming the tech talent shortage. One way is to upskill the workers you already have. For example, perhaps someone on your customer success team is interested in learning a coding language and transitioning to software engineering. Providing them with a path to do so might make a lot of sense, given they have the added context of working closely with customers and understanding their needs.

This type of training takes time, money, and effort. Identifying these types of people in your organization is difficult, and designing courses to enable every person who wants to switch to software engineering is extremely challenging. Each person likely has a different baseline level of knowledge, so upskilling may take longer than anticipated.

Another avenue is looking for talent in-house. Some people may be in a technical role tangential to software engineering and could do some light coding. But again, finding these folks and convincing them to swap roles isn’t a walk in the park, and they may still need some training to update their knowledge and polish their skills.

The last一and, in our opinion, the best一option is to outsource. Freelancing platforms have a wealth of tech talent just waiting for their next assignment. You don’t have to pay for extra training, you don’t have to wait for an FTE to get up to speed, and you can use them on a project-to-project basis. Freelancers can dive right in and can be more cost-effective than other tech talent for certain projects. They can work from anywhere so usually settle down in places with a lower cost of living than tech hubs like San Francisco.

Freelance developers can close the gap

These days, there are plenty of experienced freelancers on sites like Upwork or Fiverr, and recruiting services like Facet. The pandemic only convinced more talented developers to quit their jobs and strike it out on their own or brush off old skills to make extra money.

Freelancers might also be more inclined to work for companies, nonprofits, or philanthropies with a strong mission. Many left previous jobs because of dissatisfaction, and helping organizations do good would allow them to derive more meaning and inspiration from their work.

Ockert van Schalkwyk, a freelance developer based in South Africa, started freelancing while still working at his full-time job and found it to be a pleasant surprise. Unlike his typical jobs, he wasn’t forced to stay at his computer even when he was finished with his work, and the freelance tasks he was working on had meaning and value. He says,

“When you think about it, working for a company has lots of slack and redundancy. It’s possible to sit all day and do nothing substantial, or your boss makes up some assignment in order to occupy your time.

I found that discouraging and insulting. Freelancing is completely different; I can set my own schedule, pick my own clients, and feel more of a sense of responsibility attached to the work I deliver.”

Another great thing about freelance developers is that they are open to accepting smaller assignments. Doing a trial project ensures that the freelancer is a good fit before you commit to a larger sum. In addition, most freelance developers have multiple high-value skills, meaning you may be able to hire one freelancer to get the same amount of work done as several FTEs.

For Ockert, this was a distinct advantage.

“I tend to gravitate towards low-code platforms, but my favorite part about that is not using low-code. In other words, I’m a specialist at designing integrations between low-code platforms and other applications, which requires Java, JavaScript, and other languages I knew from my previous jobs. This made me a well-rounded, competitive freelancer who could tackle more difficult projects.”

He’s not alone. 81% of IT managers say utilizing freelancers helped them get more done, and 50% say freelancers help them quickly and efficiently scale their teams to support project demands.

Freelance developers in practice

At Entidad, we’ve witnessed the magic of freelance developers firsthand. As demand for our services grew, we found ourselves in a bind. We knew that we wanted to use Mendix for development, but we learned that we simply didn’t have the time to both deliver for our clients and train up additional help. Over the years, we’ve been able to hire freelance developers from Peru, South Africa, and Curaçao.

Although you might think the time difference would hinder development, it actually strengthened it. They were able to get work done while we were off. We could get up and test the next day. With their help, we developed, tested, and launched three apps this year and one more to go.

And the freelancers enjoyed the experience, too. Carlos, who is based in Peru, says,

“The leadership at Entidad has a very clear vision and sets challenging goals for us. I like working with them because it pushes me to learn more and I feel good about helping Latin American farm workers get access to the resources they need.”

Beyond working towards a mission he believes in, freelancing has given Carlos more time to spend with his family,

“Before I was giving up a lot of my time, tears, and pain working at other companies, and I felt removed from what they were doing. Freelancing gave me the flexibility to work on what I find meaningful and step away from my work when I’m done. Now I have the opportunity to be more present with my daughter.”

Using freelancer developers has helped us deliver resources and aid farm worker communities, and we are excited to continue seeing results in our future endeavors. Head to the Entidad website to learn more about our story and apply to our open roles!

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Julette Martinez

CEO, Farm Worker Organization