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Health care is among the most in-demand career fields for freelance workers.VILevi/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Although the typical Canadian freelancer may be perceived as a writer, graphic designer or other such creative type, new data paint a different picture of the temporary and contract work force.

A recent report by FlexJobs found that between May and July of 2016, the most in-demand career fields for freelancers were medical and health, education, project management, computer and IT, and accounting and finance.

While the findings are primarily based on American job postings, "it seems to carry over pretty consistently with Canadian-based companies," said Brie Reynolds, FlexJobs' director of content for the freelance job board.

There are 53 million freelancers in the United States, representing 34 per cent of the country's entire work force, a number predicted to reach 40 per cent by the year 2020, according to the Freelancer's Union.

Approximately 1.9 million Canadians are classified as self-employed and without having employees of their own, according to Statistics Canada, while another 2.3 million are classified as temporary employees. Combined, these two groups represent approximately 21.5 per cent of Canada's overall work force.

"What this study shows is that more traditional fields – like education or health care or accounting and finance – can be done on a freelance basis, and those opportunities seem to be growing even more so than the traditional freelance fields, like writing and graphic design," Ms. Reynolds said. "I think it bodes well for anyone that's interested in being a contractor or being self-employed, that there's more opportunity than ever before."

The freelance economy is diverse in terms of age and level of experience.

"We have members from across the country, all ages, all levels of education, all income levels, some who can make a really decent living and others who are just scraping by," said Leslie Dyson, president of the Canadian Freelance Union.

"We have older workers who have been doing it for many decades who are quite well established, who actually hire other freelancers to assist on projects, and then we have younger people with incredible levels of education and skill."

Ms. Dyson adds that while many Canadian freelancers prefer to work independently, others are forced into less permanent work as a result of dwindling permanent career opportunities. "There's no denying that more and more people are now becoming freelancers, that is just the way things seem to be going until we see some significant changes in our economy," she said.

As a result, Canadian staffing agencies that specialize in recruiting temporary and contract workers are seeing significant demand. Toronto-based IT staffing agency, Eagle – which was identified by FlexJobs as the top Canadian employer of freelancers for professional positions – receives well more than 7,000 online applications a month.

"I would say the majority of resources that work with us have anywhere between 10 and 20 years experience," said Frances McCart, the vice-president of business development at Eagle, which began as the recruitment division of Andersen Consulting, now Accenture PLC.

During her 20-year career, Ms. McCart says she's witnessed a gradual but significant evolution in the perception of freelance workers in the IT industry.

"When I first started, using an independent contractor was very rare, and it was sort of considered dirty, like you weren't the best person, you couldn't get a full-time job, that's why you went contract," she said. "Over the years, and especially since the Y2K changing in technology, a lot of people became independent contractors, and that's escalated over the years."

Companies of all sizes now employ freelance IT workers on a regular basis, particularly when adopting and upgrading new technology platforms. The finance industry similarly employs a significant number of temporary staff for specific or seasonal projects, such as audits and compliance, and to replace permanent staff on leave.

"Any time you have an industry or a sector that's undergoing a lot of change, or a company that's been acquired or going through an IPO, or companies are merging, that tends to result in them putting a freeze on permanent hiring while they sort everything out," said Viney Mandal, the vice-president of client services in the finance and accounting contract division of Lannick, a Toronto-based staffing firm. "If they need to replace people who leave who are in critical accounting functions, they replace them with contractors."

Mr. Mandal adds that industries such as finance are outpacing more creative industries in freelance hiring as a result of their relative growth in recent years.

"The economic cycle [in finance] is strong right now, which results in companies being able to open up and spend money on various projects that they might not otherwise when they're constraining spending," he said. "Demand for strong professional talent in the accounting and finance space right now outstrips supply. It wasn't that case five years ago when we were in a tougher [economic] time."

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