This article was originally published as a part of Mediaplanet’s The Future of Work campaign.

In recent years, the U.S. workforce has shifted away from the traditional 9-5 office job in favor of flexible arrangements that enable individuals to work on their own terms. Today’s professionals are increasingly gravitating towards opportunities that allow them to dictate their schedules, enjoy greater work-life balance, and to live and work from wherever they choose. And as companies begin to embrace flexible work arrangements at scale, many in the workforce are finding that a fruitful freelance career is more attractive (and more attainable) than ever before.

More than 75% of respondents have done freelance work within the past year, and many are currently hunting for new freelance opportunities.

The design industry is a perfect example of this shift. In Dribbble’s annual global survey of more than 17,000 design professionals, we found that more than 75% of respondents have done freelance work within the past year, and many are currently hunting for new freelance opportunities. So, how can freelance designers in an increasingly competitive market set themselves apart and generate more job opportunities? The answer is by leveling up their skill sets and investing time to build their networks.

Keep Those Skills Sharp

While nearly half of the U.S. designers we surveyed (49%) say they learned design in school, nearly a third of designers reported learning design on their own (31%). There are many resources for learning new skills that don’t involve a classroom. You can develop your expertise, sharpen your skills, and expand your knowledge into new areas without leaving your desk (or couch, or coffee shop—wherever you like to work).

The most successful freelancers keep their skills honed through regular design exercises, like Dribbble’s Weekly Warm-Up, or expand their knowledge base through digital learning communities like Skillshare or Udemy, which offer the ability to take online classes on your schedule. With our design community reporting that Motion and Illustration will be the top technical skills to know in the next 2-3 years, there’s no time but the present to start investing in yourself.

Outside of technical skills, the designers we surveyed also reported an interest in improving their communication and business skills, too. In many cases, being a freelancer equates to being self-employed, which can come with a new set of challenges. Not only are you working on your creative projects, you’re also managing client reporting, balancing your finances, developing contracts, and more. As such, freelancers should consider refining their business acumen through e-courses and other online resources, or connecting with a volunteer business mentor via organizations like SCORE.

Connect and Collaborate

When it comes to getting hired, it’s critical that freelancers build meaningful connections with fellow designers and hiring professionals in the industry. Our survey found that the most common ways that U.S. designers are contacted about freelance opportunities are through direct email (43%), in-person (37%), or via a message on their portfolio website or networks like Dribbble, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Twitter (20%).

Despite this clear opportunity to secure freelance work through in-person connections, more than 50% of designers reported NOT going to any conferences, workshops, or industry get-togethers in the past 6 months. Now is the time to break out of your shell and build your network. Dribbble Meetups, for example, offer a casual way for designers to connect with other designers in their area, and local design groups and companies often host portfolio reviews and workshops for designers to collaborate and grow.

When it comes to getting hired, it’s critical that freelancers build meaningful connections with fellow designers…

Not only are meetups a great opportunity to grow your network, they’re also a way to combat some of the challenges that come with remote and freelance work. For example, our survey found that 21% of remote employees feel a lack of team bonding, and 18% struggle with loneliness and lack of regular human interaction. Keeping yourself connected with others—whether with freelancers in your industry, or in another industry entirely—can provide emotional support that can sometimes be lost when working remotely. While there are many ways to connect with others digitally, there is a value to in-person connections that simply can’t be met by an app or social network.

Being a freelancer can enable you to find meaningful opportunities to express your creativity and to build a career that you’re proud of, all on your own terms. But, you have to work at it. Investing in yourself, growing your skill set on a consistent basis, and building connections with others will not only make you a more competitive candidate in the eyes of hiring managers, it will also enrich your life, both personally and professionally.

You can find Dribbble in Mediaplanet’s The Future of Work campaign, out today! Help us lead the way in forging a new work culture that prioritizes employee well-being and balance, embraces flexibility as remote work becomes more popular, and offers resources and protections for a growing freelance workforce. The campaign was distributed through USA TODAY on December 27, 2019, and is published online.

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