Online Freelance Jobs Are Hot, but Can You Afford to Take Them?

The dawn of the contract technology worker era is here, and it's blossoming in numbers never seen before, finds two reports. Mobile development in Android, iPhone and Facebook, HTML5 and Adobe Flash skills are hot now and in 2011. Hourly rates on two of the largest freelance job boards, however, show not much more earnings than an assistant manager's rate at Starbucks.

We're not trying to beat a dead horse here, honestly. Freelance, contract and online jobs are for real. And if you have the right technology skills, well, you can piecemeal steady and consistent work in hot areas following the buying patterns of consumers.

The economy has been somewhat stagnant over the past few months, with unemployment numbers ticking up to 9.8 percent, and technology jobs inching up only slightly in November but nowhere near the peak of hiring in 2007. Despite that, consumers are gobbling up iPhones, Androids, iPad tablets and other sleek, lightweight devices for easy mobility while purchasing inexpensive but useful applications intended for these devices.

The shift from building static Websites with mobile versions to building lightweight but rich mobile applications for smartphones like the iPhone and Android devices, and tablets like the iPad and others is driving a significant need for mobile application developers. Couple that with company reluctance on increasing major headcount, keeping costs contained between benefits and office space, and you have the perfect storm for freelance work.

According to Elance, a freelance-based job board, technology workers with mobile application development skills have seen a 98 percent increase in job demand in 2010. Other hot technology skills in the freelance market include search engine marketing, Google's application engine, HTML5 and affiliate marketing while BlackBerry skills and DHTML have seen job demand declines.

"More businesses integrated online workers into their staffing models and more professionals opted to work online instead of onsite, marking a fundamental shift in labor practices in 2010," said Fabio Rosati, CEO of Elance in a statement.

Overall, Elance experienced more than 375,000 job postings this year, and has posted more than one million jobs since 2006. Online freelancers are earning more than $100 million annually from postings on Elance. Similar to services offered by Elance, ODesk has also seen tremendous growth in online freelance work with more than 620,000 online job opportunities since 2009. Much of its growth is in the same areas of technology as Elance including Android application development and Facebook application work--with many of the workers coming from the Philippines, India and the United States.

The list of skills in demand from a technology perspective is staggering. On a list of the 50 top categories of work, less than 15 percent did not have a technology component. The Internet has exploded opportunities in technical work for individuals and small businesses.

The commoditization of technology skills, however, has some consequences: Rates for much of the technical work found on these sites have been driven downward. When comparing hourly Odesk rates between 2009 and 2010, the average rate dropped from $10 to $9 an hour. Some of the highest rates include networking, information systems, software and Web development which go for an average of $13 to $15 an hour.

The most telling benefit of these rate drops is the effect on the cost of doing business for small businesses and Websites. As one featured employer, Jonathan Swanson, COO of, boasts on the Odesk site where the 2010 data is posted:

"When you can cut your labor costs by 90 percent, a lot of things become possible."