Navigating the Path of Professional Development for Freelancers

By Liz Alton, Contributor, on January 9, 2017

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By 2020, 40 percent of the workforce could be made up of freelancers, and your training is an essential part of staying competitive. Professional development for freelancers is the key to keeping your skills fresh, your brain engaged and your business growing.

Companies develop budgets, training agendas and clear growth paths for their teams. As a freelancer, you can invest your time and training dollars where your career path, interests and market demands lead. There’s just one catch: The burden of establishing the path, investing and reaping the benefits falls on you.

Creating a comprehensive professional development plan doesn’t happen on its own. You need to prioritize it as a mindset and a budget investment.

1. Take Control of Your Professional Development

When you work for a company as a regular employee and your boss doesn’t support your training, you can go to human resources (HR). As a freelancer, you’re both the boss and the HR rep wrapped into one. It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day aspects of running your business and meeting customer demands, but investing in your own professional development will keep your skills sharp, allowing you to stay current with market trends and find new opportunities to grow your business.

2. Consider Where the Market Is Headed

You should always keep an eye on where the market is going. For example, freelance graphic designers may gain an advantage by watching and learning the latest tools released by Adobe or by attending trainings on the hottest corporate design trends. Writers may benefit from learning to write video scripts or taking storytelling classes to add depth to content marketing work.

Investing in training can result in a big payoff when it helps you develop knowledge, skills, technical capabilities or networks tied to future trends in your business. Look at what thought leaders in your industry are talking about and where the experiments are happening. Consider what’s relevant today, as well as what will become relevant in a year or even three years from now.

3. Look at Gaps (Opportunities) in Your Own Skills

When crafting professional development plans to help you grow your business, consider this: What gaps and opportunities exist in your current skill set? For example, a freelance animator who wants more clients may benefit from learning new software or techniques. Think about what’s holding you back from growing and taking on bigger assignments. A professional development plan that aims to close these gaps is essential to sustainable growth. It can also help you control your costs over the long term by giving you more decision-making authority over what you outsource or handle yourself.

4. Invest for ROI

At a previous job I held in corporate America, each request for training funds was met with a simple answer. Requests had to be justified and answer the following questions:

  • How did the training relate to your jobs and goals?
  • Why was this option the best? Answers could include anything from credentials it inferred to building a great network.
  • How was this choice priced, compared to other options? For example, why should you choose a $1,000 seminar instead of a $500 class at the local university?
  • What concrete applications and returns can you demonstrate — immediately and over the long run — to help the company ensure a high return on investment?

These questions can also assess training opportunities you consider. For one, a freelance consultant might consider business training. If scaling your business is a major goal for the year ahead and you’re lacking key strategy skills, there’s a clear tie-in.

Perhaps a specific training is focused exactly on clients in your niche and, as a result, you’ll be able to immediately apply the insights while growing your network. The course might be more expensive than an online alternative, but also might offer more networking opportunities or personalized feedback. Finally, when you think in terms of concrete applications, you can use the insights to shape your business plan or rethink your service packages.

Investing with ROI in mind ensures you’re not just chasing butterflies with your professional development planning, but instead evaluating opportunities through the lens of what they will contribute to your business.

5. Follow Your Passions to Unexpected Places

Like many other areas of the indy life, the freedom to pursue what really interests you can take your career in unexpected places. Many companies won’t invest in training at all if it doesn’t directly relate to your current position, but you have more control over this and can explore what interests you.

A solid professional development plan helps your business grow over the long term, but don’t overlook the chance to periodically indulge your curiosity. For example, a creative writing course may strengthen a writer’s voice, or a podcast workshop may open up a whole new marketing channel. Exploring things that interest you can also refill your creative well and give you fresh ideas for interesting ways to serve your clients.

Take the time to think about the different ways you can improve your own skill set, your company’s visibility and how your client offerings can grow through utilizing courses, seminars, books, conferences, coaching and the full range of other options out there. From feeling reinvigorated to keeping your business current, every freelancer should put together a professional development plan this year.

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