Why recent graduates should become self-employed

Sofia Lewis makes the case for why recent graduates should become self-employed and shares her advice on starting out.

Go to university, get a degree, find a good entry-level job. It’s a path that most grads, including myself, have long felt compelled to follow.

It’s understandable. After all, for a cash-strapped recent grad, it’s often far more tempting, if not vital, to choose the security of a full-time job over the initial precarity of freelancing.

But what happens when this well-worn trajectory is turned on its head? Well, the coronavirus pandemic has done just that. According to The Institute of Student Employers’ (ISE), which represents some of the UK’s biggest graduate employers, over a quarter (27%) of businesses plan to reduce the number of graduates they recruit in 2020. On top of this, many more routes into entry-level jobs, such as internships and work experience, have been placed on pause indefinitely.

A graduate frelancer

With no signs of graduate recruitment prospects improving anytime soon, how will grads get on that all-important first rung of the career ladder? How can you make the most of your skills, particularly those skills which could bring immeasurable value to businesses right now? Is it time that grads follow a different path? I think so.

As someone who began freelancing right after I graduated (and hasn’t looked back since), here’s why I think now is the time for graduates to kick-start their freelance career.

1. It’s tough out there, but the entry-level job market might be tougher

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s tough out there for freelancers right now. Many self-employed professionals have reported a downturn in work or have lost contracts due to the pandemic. But, perhaps for the first time ever, it may be more difficult for recent grads to bag an entry-level role than land their first freelance clients. Forbes contributor Jon Younger thinks that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to give freelancing a major growth spurt in order to meet growing demand. “More companies are likely to access freelancers both for cost efficiency and to supplement critical skillset,” he says. With graduate recruitment drying up, this could be the perfect opportunity to try out freelancing and see if it suits you.

2. Time is on your side

Setting up as a freelancer can be time-consuming, but with an empty social calendar (well, aside from all those Zoom quizzes) there’s no better time to get started. Whether you want to set up as a web designer, writer, digital marketer, bookkeeper or something totally niche, you’ll first of all need to conduct plenty of research into your chosen role. I started by thinking about my specific skills – which were writing, languages and dealing with people – and figured out how I could market them as a complete service. Now, I help Italian and Spanish-speaking brands break into the UK market with compelling digital content. How can you go about turning your skills into a business?

You should then decide whether you want to set up as a sole trader or limited company, as there are some crucial differences between the two.

Next, you should draw up a basic business plan outlining:

  • The services you’ll offer 
  • How much you want or need to earn
  • How much you’ll need to charge

Then, go ahead and register as self-employed with HMRC.

Become a member of IPSE

3. Now’s the best time to network

Networking is a fundamental life skill. It’s what lands you dream clients, wins you pay rises, and fosters your future success. But it can be a daunting experience for us new graduates and, let’s admit it, can end up being something we actively avoid rather than throw ourselves into. It’s important to remember that, like any other skill, networking is something you can practise and get better at. Unlike full-time employees, freelancers rely on networking to win work, so kicking off your freelance career will mean stepping up your networking game for good.

Now that the coronavirus pandemic has shifted networking online, you’ll need to know where to look for your first clients. I won some brilliant first clients through global freelancing platform Upwork which, along with similar sites like Fivver and PeoplePerHour, can be a great way for graduates to dip their toes into self-employment. But use these platforms with caution. As well as taking hefty fees, some jobs on these sites advertise shamefully low rates. You shouldn’t feel as though you have to join a race to the bottom. Seek out clients that will value your skillset.

You can also use the network and resources you already have to find clients. What about reaching out to your University’s Alumni network or career service, which may be available for several years after graduation?

Fellow freelancers are always looking for an extra pair of hands to help out on a big project, whip up a website or keep tabs on their accounts. In fact, one of my favourite projects was crafting copy for another freelancer’s AI website. What’s more, it could be a great way to glean insight from people who are more experienced than you.

4. Stay positive

There’s no doubt that the next few months are going to be tough on recent grads, whatever you decide to do. Should you take the plunge and start freelancing, expect to work hard, network harder and receive knock-backs by the bucket load. But the key is to be persistent. For those recent grads who think outside the box, are innovative, and shout about their skills, there are incredible rewards to be had in a freelance career, even during the most difficult of times.

Meet the author

Sofia Lewis
Sofia is a freelance journalist based in South Wales.