Freelancing jobs on the rise in Washington County

Photo by Michael Kelly Linsee Thomas works in the first floor common room where she operates a single-person enterprise, Thomas Virtual Services, out of a workstation in the building. She is one of more than 3,700 people in Washington County who run non-employer businesses in Washington County, some of which, like hers, serve a geographically widespread client base on a digital platform.

MARIETTA — Sara Bir admits she has an unusual set of skills. Liberal arts studies and culinary expertise, a passion for education and a gift for writing don’t fit the description for many jobs available in small towns.

She realized more than a decade ago that she could choose to work in a major metropolitan area or return to her hometown, Marietta, and create her own job. She chose the quality of life and low cost of living in Marietta.

Bir is one of many residents who have chosen to take control of their destinies by creating a business enterprise of one person.

Bir writes, offers culinary workshops on techniques ranging from bread baking to yogurt making, and does professional test-kitchen recipe runs.

She’s published two books, “Tasting Ohio Favorite Recipes from the Buckeye State” and “The Fruit Forager’s Companion: Desserts, Main Dishes, and More from Your Neighborhood and Beyond,” along with a small handbook on paw-paw recipes, and provides editing and copywriting services. Her clients are both local and out of the area.

Bir, 43, moved back home from the West Coast several years ago.

“As a person who grew up in Marietta, I always thought I would move to a major city and never come back,” she said. “But as a freelancer I can work anywhere, and Marietta has a low cost of living, and it’s a place where I feel valued, a place where I can thrive doing what I’m doing.”

She began freelancing as a writer and cook educator about 15 years ago, she said, and reached a point at which she realized she could make more money on her own compared to working for a wage.

Now, about half her income is realized from events, such as workshops, where she has to be present, and the other half comes from remote, online work.

“The first couple of years was hard. I didn’t make much money but I was able to get through it with the emotional support of my family and my many friends, and I knew how to navigate the landscape of Marietta,” she said. “Now, I’m very happy doing this, and I just wish there were more different kinds of work for people in this area, not just factory work, although that’s important. But I realize not everyone can do what I’m doing, and I love living in Marietta and seeing it thrive.”

Linsee Thomas, who just turned 30, holds a bachelor of nursing degree, but she found the shift work and random hours interfered with her family life. She and her husband have four children, ranging in age from 7 months to 8 years old. Now the proprietor and sole employee of Thomas Virtual Services, she works between 10 and 20 hours a week, and says she makes as much money as she would as a part-time nurse working an equal number of hours.

“I love nursing but the hours aren’t always the best for a mom,” she said. “I wanted to work for myself and set my own hours so I can be with my kids. You have to be creative to get the best of both worlds.”

Thomas Virtual Services offers to do the work that many business owners either aren’t cut out for or just don’t want to be bothered with – email and social media management, graphic design and marketing, administrative work that is time consuming.

Being a millennial, Thomas grew up in the culture of virtual and digital devices, and assuming the role of virtual assistant was a natural choice. Even during her time as a nurse, she was often the one best adapted to manage computerized files and data and new applications related to the profession in her workplace.

“I’ve always been interested in that, quick at learning computers,” she said. “I grew up with tech, and I actually found a program online that taught me how to do everything as a virtual assistant. The person who created the program was also a mom, helping thousands of other moms do the same thing.”

She can serve customers anywhere in the world that has internet connections.

“I’ve worked with local clients, but for people in this area I’ve had to do some extra explaining about the service. In online communities, you don’t have to do that, they’re already familiar with it,” she said.

The business allows her to provide the family with at least as much income as she made as a nurse, but she added that her husband has a good job that pays well.

“I would really recommend this, especially for moms who think they don’t have that choice,” she said. “I’m a millennial, and we get a bad rap, but a large sector of the people my age are really changing the way they earn their income. I think the old time traditional economy, it’s just not going to be the same in the future.”

Thomas and Bir both work at least part of their time out of the IncSwell, Inc., office space in the Ketter Block on Front Street. Architect Jared Perry repurposed two floors of the venerable building specifically for single-person enterprises who need a workspace with amenities like office equipment and broadband connections but little else to make their businesses thrive.

They work side by side, occasionally, with other enterprises such as Marietta Main Street and the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority, which also have desks in the space. Perry said the mix is natural, with the proximity of other creative minds nurturing synergy rather than distraction.

“There’s a bunch of places like this, around the country and around the world,” he said in an interview in November. “It’s a proven concept.”

The notion of creating your own job is one that sounds daunting, but support and training for people who want to make a go of it on their own is taking hold in Washington County. More of the public schools are offering some business management components, and the entrepreneurship program at Marietta College is spreading through the community.

Jackie Khorassani leads the program, and she approaches entrepreneurship as a much bigger idea than just promoting and managing a business.

“The idea behind this program is to change or enhance the student’s mindset, to show them how they can use the tools we are giving them to turn their passions in marketable goods and services,” she said. “We’re not saying you have to major in business, you could major in art, music, history, and you learn how to use that passion as something the markets are willing to pay for.”

The program has been active and growing at the college for five years and now offers certification and a minor in entrepreneurship. Outreach programs are offered to high school students, who can compete for prizes in the Junior PioBiz event. Students at the college volunteer to become mentors for the high school students, a system that works beneficially in both directions, Khorassani said.

“The idea is that we don’t just stage a competition, we provide help and faculty expertise to students so they can achieve their goals,” she said. “We want to help our own students, too, and the best way to learn something is by teaching it, so the college students who mentor the high school students can actually apply what they’re learning in class.”

Khorassani said the program at its foundation signals a change in the way things are taught to young people and what they are taught.

“We have memorizing, grade maximization for no reason. We have to teach the students that they are in control, that a major is just a tool. Things don’t happen automatically and passively,” she said. “We know that even if you wind up working for someone else, they’ll appreciate this, having thinkers with that creative mindset. They don’t want robots, robots are easy to find.”

The entrepreneurship program has received substantial support from the community, ranging from businesses that sponsor prizes and events to volunteers stepping forward to help young people develop the attitude toward controlling their own working futures, she said.

Khorassani said it’s especially important to reach people when they are young, hence the outreach to high schools and even middle schools.

“This generation especially values quality of life, more than the generation before them,” she said. “They are driven, they want to go places, they’re not lazy, but they want that quality of life, they’re not salary maximizers or profit maximizers. They realize the good things in life can’t be measured in dollars and cents.

“They’re a lot more socially and politically aware, they’re independent thinkers, and entrepreneurship fits well with their overall goals, as freelancers, self-employed people,” she said. “We have an entrepreneur-in-residence who for most of his life has been a business of one, and he’s done very well, subcontracted everything. That’s really a new model.”