Harvard Business School professor Jeffrey L. Bradach is a leading scholar on the economics and organization of the new talent market. Fast Company asked him to analyze the market's current state — and to imagine its future.
What's gone wrong with the pricing of talent inside companies that's prompted people to declare free agency?
Many organizations undervalue the talent they have. They move employees lock-step through promotion and pay structures and prevent them from making more than their bosses - even if they're contributing more. For some people, leaving the company is the best way to get their true market value.
Suppose an individual decides to "go public." What's the main thing he or she should be looking for in a MacTemps, M-Squared, IMCOR, or some other talent exchange?
Good engagements. Does the agency know what constitutes a good assignment for you and can they provide it? Examine their client and project lists, interview contractors, and meet with managers of the agency.
Anything else to consider?
Think about the effect on your reputation of working with the agency. Who else is listed? What are the buyers saying about the place? And see if it provides any services - health care benefits, retirement plans, and so on - that you're not getting elsewhere.
How about learning and skill-building? Do you see intermediaries like these more into the education and training business?
Maybe. It's nice to say that free agents will constantly sharpen their skills through assignments — but the truth is that clients aren't interested in paying you to learn. However, there are some interesting models of intermediaries doing more in the area of training. For instance, Romac International, a big staffing company, has crafted a program where contractors, clients, and the agency share the costs of learning new skills.
What are some other ways these talent exchanges could evolve? And what will it mean not just for the economy, but for the broader society?
It's possible that these intermediaries could become the main places where people find work opportunities, develop their skills, and find a sense of community - a bit like the craft guilds of old. Right now we only see bits and pieces of this rather utopian future. And while it's easy to imagine for highly skilled, mobile free agents, it's harder to figure out what that means for the less well-educated part of the workforce.
A version of this article appeared in the August 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.