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How Malcolm Turnbull can show he really backs innovation

Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images.

Australia’s workforce is undergoing the most significant disruption since the Industrial Revolution. Gone are the days of a salaried job-for-life, beholden to a single corporate employer; workers are now choosing a different path.

Today’s professionals want to work for themselves. According to a study by Upwork, nearly one-third (32%) of working-age Australians did freelance work in 2015. That equates to one in three workers that are now part of a new and quickly-growing segment of the workforce that didn’t even exist a decade ago. What’s even more powerful is that the majority (57%) started freelancing more by choice, primarily driven by flexibility and freedom – a sign that the freelance economy will continue to grow because of its appeal to workers, not of out of necessity based on economic conditions.

Technology is the lifeblood of innovation

Connectivity is a key factor that has enabled the rise of the freelance workforce, as it gives Australians access to more professional opportunities not limited by location. In fact, Upwork’s study found that 68% of freelancers agree that technology is making it easier than ever for Aussies to find freelance work online (compared to 59% in 2014).

This shift can benefit more than just freelancers though.

According to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report, Australia’s untapped digital business is costing $49.2 billion in lost economic potential. The report estimates that more than 53% of this could be generated from regional and rural areas that have been hit hard by the decline of traditional industries. Coal and iron prices have collapsed in the past few years, taking jobs with them, and Australia can no longer thrive as the “world’s mine”. It is why the government’s economic narrative has switched from resources to technology and innovation.

While the government is moving in the right direction by putting innovation at the forefront of the agenda, they need to more substantively support this statement by investing in digital infrastructure in order to maximize the potential of this growing segment of the workforce. The move towards an ‘Ideas Boom’ is a great first step, but they haven’t fully executed against their vision.

Halting the move to metro

Despite escalating unemployment in regional areas, many business owners believe they need to move to major metropolitan cities to be able to build a successful digital business. One of the biggest concerns is finding skilled workers from a small pool of potential employees. If you need to find website developers, graphic designers or someone to build a mobile app there won’t be much to pick and choose from in the average country town.

Previously this might have been an issue. Now, thanks to the Internet, businesses can create a virtual workforce using freelancers from sites such as Upwork which lets them tap into top talent online. Instead of struggling to find skills locally, they now have a global pool of more than ten million freelancers offering nearly 3,000 skills.

It’s clear that this freelance workforce can help drive business and have a huge impact on the economy. But without government support, its power is limited.

Investment in digital infrastructure is critical to support this growing industry, such as:

  • Improving education, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) skills. A recent Infosys report found that Australian students were among the world’s least confident when it came to their technical skills
  • Building a future-proof, world-class national broadband network. According to a Nielsen report, three-quarters of the nation’s businesses believe a national broadband infrastructure will increase their ability to engage in the digital economy
  • Reforming regulation and taxation for freelancers and entrepreneurs. Countries such as the UK are trying to make taxation simply and easier for the self-employed.

What workers want

Freelancers themselves are calling out for support. As a growing section of the workforce, they’re also a powerful political force. Over half of freelancers believe that Australia needs more open discussion about freelancing. Millennials in particular are more likely to vote for a candidate that supports their interests (57% vs 44% for non-millennials).

Not surprisingly, freelancers are very upbeat about their potential to propel the economy. 77% believe that increased opportunities for freelancers are a positive step for the economy, and 65% say investment in digital infrastructure will also help the economy grow.

Australia needs to become a digitally enabled, digitally literate workforce if it is to thrive as a global force in future years. The importance of freelancers and having access to global talent to drive the new economy can’t be understated. It’s also an opportunity to improve youth and graduate unemployment, support parents looking looking to return to work and older workers who want to work in retirement but on their own terms.

But the rise of the freelance economy goes hand-in-hand with access to agile and smart technology. It’s time for politicians to put tech and innovation at the forefront of the agenda and build the digital infrastructure Australia desperately needs to succeed.

Rich Pearson is the senior vice president of Marketing and Categories at Upwork, the world’s largest online marketplace for connecting businesses with skilled talent.

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