Sailing solo

Many Marylanders who leave traditional workplaces are finding a smoother course in being their own boss.

February 13, 2005|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

For Amy D. Wells, it was a newborn son. For Steve Johnson, a driving desire for frequent change. And Ray Powell was simply sick of bosses.

Separate reasons, same conclusion: Work for themselves.

A relatively small but fast-growing portion of Maryland's population is doing the same. There were more than 343,000 "nonemployer establishments" - one-person businesses - in the state at last count in 2002, up 15 percent in five years.

That's quadruple the birth rate for employer firms in the state, according to Census Bureau data.

Though they're far less common than 9-to-5 employees, these solo operators - who range from accountants to computer programmers to marketers - make up three-quarters of Maryland businesses. Only six states in the nation can top that.

It's a trend whose time has apparently come.

The country is in the middle of tremendous changes that alternately encourage and force workers to go it alone. On the downside, lifetime employment at one company is out; consolidation and outsourcing are in. But technological advances - from e-mail to cell phones to digital organizers - make it much easier and cheaper to be a free agent than ever before.

"Before the '90s and the latest IT, it was just a lot more difficult to have all the business support services it took to run your own business," said Andrew Hodge, who studies employment trends as the group managing director of North American economics for Global Insight Inc.

At the same time, the American mind-set appears to be shifting away from the notion that a payroll job is the only good way to earn a living - propelled by baby boomers looking for self-actualization or a source of income after retirement.

And plenty of people are simply in the market for something an employer can't give them.

"I answer to myself, basically," said Powell, 52, owner of Computer Repair On Wheels, who went out on his own in 2000 after years of factory and drafting jobs. "I definitely work more hours ... but I like doing it."

Wells works fewer hours than she did in her last graphic design job, but then that was the whole point. She left a local nonprofit in 1990, not long after her first child was born and has been freelancing ever since.

Now a parent of four, she spends about 30 hours a week on projects - from magazine work to brochures - and appreciates the flexibility that allows her to be the mom who shows up for all the school field trips.

"I decided if I couldn't make a go of it in six months or so that I'd go back full time to something," said Wells, 45, of Timonium. "But I never had to do that."

Johnson, a computer programmer, spent seven years in a Hunt Valley research and development job before realizing he didn't want to be a middle manager or report to one.

"It was pretty clear that what I was going to end up doing there was ... the same things over and over and over," said Johnson, 48, who lives in Monkton. "I decided that professionally it would be stagnating, and I wanted to change."

So he left - 20 years ago - and revels in the variety of contracting work.

Mary Ann Masur, 42, a former leasing manager who jumped off the corporate America ship in 2003 to be an executive and personal coach, calls this group "solopreneurs" - and she's seeing more and more of them.

The federal government has found it a tough trend to measure, however.

The Labor Department's monthly jobs report shows about 9.5 million self-employed people nationwide, but academics say the number is low because it doesn't include anyone with an incorporated business.

The Census Bureau found 17.6 million nonemployer establishments at last count in 2002, but there's no way to tell how many are part-time operations - or whether some of the proprietors are moonlighting while holding down a traditional job.

Still, it's clear that plenty of non-traditional workers exist. In a 2000 study, the then-General Accounting Office concluded that if all workers who aren't full-time employees are counted - from temps to consultants to day laborers to contractors - the total would come to 40 million Americans.

"The way that people are working today is so idiosyncratic," said Daniel H. Pink, a former White House speechwriter and current self-employed author who wrote about the phenomenon in a 2001 book, Free Agent Nation. "I've seen in the last few years a lot of migration back and forth - that is, people moving from self-employment to traditional work and from traditional work to self-employment, more easily and often than ever before."

The recent entrepreneurial growth could be just the opening act, said Bruce D. Phillips, a senior economist with the National Federation of Independent Business Research Foundation. Baby boomers are nearing retirement age, but he doubts that many of those 77 million Americans will simply stop working.

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