Freelancers: A vital resource

Freelancers are a vital asset, Paul Milligan looks at the relationship between them and AV companies, and how to keep the good ones working for your business.

The AV industry needs freelancers, it always has and always will.

If companies only ever completed installs that had been in the diary for months and months, then the desire to hire freelancers would be next to zero. But the world doesn’t work like that, projects are postponed or moved all the time. Also, no company in their right mind is going to turn down business because it's one or two engineers short to complete it. And that’s where freelancers come in, to supplement your workforce, either in numbers or in skills. We spoke to system integrators to find out how they found freelancers, how they kept the good ones, how they mixed teams of freelancers and staff and what Covid-19 could mean for the freelance pool.

We began by asking them how they found new freelancers, like many aspects of the AV industry, hiring freelancers is about relationships. “A lot of them have worked for us previously and have made the gigantic step from FTE (full-time employment) to freelance because they want greater rewards. We use those guys because they know us and it's a nice easy step,” states Kristian Cutting, deputy managing director, GV Multimedia.

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pic: shutterstock/

Creative Technology is one of the largest rental and staging companies in the world and employs freelancers throughout the year around the globe. Andy Reardon is the managing director for the Middle East operation which has two arms: events/conferences and installations. Unsurprisingly it has built up a large database of talented freelancers and Reardon says: “We are always receiving freelance CVs through the jobs section on our website as well as referrals from other professionals, it's a resource that without which we couldn't do what we do.” Having a large pool like this has other benefits to CT’s business too adds Reardon. “We have a large number of talented professionals that we employ, but we often have a good mix of full-time staff and freelancers across our events.

This initiative enables us to ensure our full time staff have a good work-life balance rather than stretching them across multiple events to save cost. We are able to look after the wellbeing of our staff while investing in the freelance community.” Other integrators such as Visavvi run a management system which constantly vet its freelancers says Colin Etchells, group technical director. “They have to sign up to that protocol and go through that online system to be registered with us. And if they don't do that, we just don't hire them, it’s as simple as that. They've got to upload copies of their public liability insurance, and make sure their accreditation is up to date for things like scaffolding, working at heights, etc.”

The education market traditionally has busy periods of the year, when schools and universities are closed, and as such demand rises for freelancers in these windows. So how do you navigate those busy periods when you need extra hands on deck? “We have a good understanding of where the market pinch points come,” says Peter Sutton, managing director, Pure AV.

“Part of our business is higher education, historically we can predict the three times a year when those massive increases in labour are required. And that’s where we pre-book engineers year in, year out, so it stops us not getting the most reliable people.”

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pic: Shutterstock/Olexandr Taranukhin

The Middle East has different busy periods. Due to the severe heat seen in the summer months, the busy period is between October and the end of December which requires a strategic approach. “When booking a freelancer in the Middle East, it can be easier to collaborate with the individual and book them for a long period of time, especially
if the individual is travelling in from abroad,” says Reardon. “Overseas freelancers require a work visa to legally work in the UAE, by the time we've processed the visa and all other work permits, it makes sense for us to book the individual for a long period as opposed to on a job-by-job basis.” Planning is paramount when it comes to freelancers says Etchells, “You have to book early to get the people you want because there is also quite a lot of rubbish out there. There are some really good engineers with a lot of experience, and then you've got the hang-and-bang engineers used to doing school classrooms.”

Once you have a good set of freelancers to call upon, how do you make sure you keep them, and they don’t disappear to work for someone else when you most need them? Treat them like your own staff and remember the good ones will be in demand.
“It’s not ‘us and them’, we try and integrate them so they're an extension of our existing team and to make them feel that way. They come to our Christmas party, we try and treat them as one of the team, we pay them on time, we pay them well, we don’t penny-pinch,” says Cutting.

“We try and make sure we create an environment where they want to come back and work with us and we are their number one to work with.” Contracts drawn up by Visavvi make sure both sides are looked after says Etchells. “The contract says if we don't give you two weeks’ notice for cancelling, then we will still pay you (a reduced fee) but we'll still pay you.” Paying people on time is also key, as no one likes to chase money they rightfully earned months before. “What we’ve been really strict on is to pay them a lot quicker. Within 14 days we will sign off their invoices and pay them. We found that helps them with their cash flow. We've got to treat these people as though they are our employees because if we don’t we’re not going to get the best technicians or the availability, it’s just a case of treating people how you'd like to be treated.” Quick payment of invoices has also had a knock-on effect says Etchells, as freelancers will now call Visavvi first when they have a free diary.

A firm consensus amongst those we spoke to was they would not send freelancers out on their own to do jobs, they will always be paired with a full-time engineer or project manager, the tricky part is finding the right mix of skills and experience. “We will have someone who runs the project, and that is a GV person.

It may well be that that person is the project manager, site manager etc, but there’s always that GV person there. And if they need to have a wider team than what our FTE can provide we will bolster our resources and pick a team to be able to support and deliver that project,” says Cutting. The Pure AV approach runs along the same lines explains Sutton, “What we're looking for with our subcontractors is a base level of AV skills. Anything that is complicated, anything that involves programming, or commissioning will all be done by our engineers. Essentially we're looking for intelligent hands, we're using them to help with cable pulling, to help with the physical installation, rather than setting up a DSP, we manage that sort of process in-house.”

The majority of freelancers hired by SIs seem to be in the all-rounder category, but sometimes a project will require a specialist skill you just don’t possess in your business, like this example from Visavvi. “In the last six months we've landed a number of jobs that have been based around QSC, and that whole platform was something that we weren’t skilled in,” says Etchells. “We‘ve gone through a massive upskilling (in QSC) but at the same time it’s like taking an insurance policy, you hire a specialist with that experience to make sure that it’s right.”

CT ME will hire specialists says Reardon for two reasons; “We need to ensure the individual is capable of producing quality work without needing to be monitored, and sometimes clients say ‘can we have the same operator as last year, he was lovely’ or ‘she was great on camera, can we have her again?’”

When shopping around for a freelancer, what is it that SIs look for? Flexibility? Price? Knowledge/expertise? “Knowledge is key, work ethic is a big thing and so is personality, let's not forget they are often on the front line of an event and in front of clients,” says Reardon. Price does comes into it admits Sutton, “But it’s often about reputation. We are very keen they can be trusted to get on and do the job and can deliver and terminate or mount those products in the way that we would expect them to be done.” Cutting is also honest enough to admit the price tag of a freelancer is an important consideration, but this is not an attempt to save money on GV’s part, more to fit the client, “Some projects are more price aggressive than others and as part of a key cost freelancers have to come to the party,” but he adds the caveat; “If you don't get your team right and you don't achieve that, then costs go out the window.”

The freelance pool fluctuates a little every year with people retiring, people leaving FTE
to go freelance and vice versa.

What could change all that is coronavirus, will we see a smaller pool now with people wanting the security of FTE, or will redundancies caused by the pandemic see the pool rise in size? “My personal opinion is the pool will widen out a little bit,” says Etchells. “I think there is a big shock coming and a number of people will be made redundant. I do think there will be a clamour for some people to get full time employment, and I’ve definitely been offered more people recently.” If companies are looking to cut significant costs to survive a post-Covid recession, one way to do it is through reducing head count. “There may be a lot of companies that are unable to employ full-time staff as they are unable to carry the cost,” says Reardon. “If that is the case, the freelance world will thrive. Equally, if we see events pick up the freelance world will still thrive as there has always been a demand for freelancers.”

Freelancers are a vital cog in the AV machine, without them many projects will struggle to complete. Rather than being merely a ‘hired hand’ freelancers can often be client-facing, and as such it is vital the ones you engage to represent your business do so in the same way full-time employees do. To the client on that given day they are your employee (whether they get holiday or sick pay or not).

This from Pure AV’s Sutton sums up perfectly how AV and the freelance market currently co-exists. “Our business model says we will employ the best engineers, the best designers, the best programmers to deliver the best quality service to our customers. So we have to take on the cost to have those engineers employed 365 days a year. But we do that because it means we can deliver a consistent level of product and service to our customers. However, we need to engage with subcontractors to supplant that.”

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