How a ‘portfolio career’ could boost your employment chances


The Herald’s Cooking the Books personal finance podcast is here to get you the tips you need to weather the financial storm. Hosted by Frances Cook, with a new money expert featured on each episode.

Covid-19 showed many of us just how precarious our careers and finances can be.

In the space of a few weeks, booming sectors like travel and hospitality were brought to a crunching halt. People across many industries were asked to take a pay cut, and others lost their jobs entirely.

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It’s a harsh lesson in a trend that was already picking up speed. Change is the new order of the day, and those who are most able to adapt are those who will keep raising their earning potential.

Enter the “portfolio career”, the key to learning new skills as you go without having to constantly take new courses or change careers.

A portfolio career simply means that instead of working in one full-time paid role, you mix and match different paid opportunities, doing slightly different things.

It might be combining different part-time jobs, or you could end up fully independent as a freelancer or contractor.

The important thing is that by working those different roles, you’re flexing different muscles at different times. You’re practicing different skills, rather than boxing yourself into a corner.

If a job falls over, there are two benefits. You have other jobs, so you haven’t lost all of your income at once. You also have a broad base of skills, making it easier to go out and look for other work.

In a recent white paper released by digital tax agency Hnry, they pointed out that 20 per cent of New Zealand’s workforce is an “independent earner” in this manner – whether it’s freelancing, contractors, gig workers, or side hustlers.

They also point out the worldwide trend is for this to increase, particularly as during the pandemic many freelancing and gig platforms reported double the usual web traffic.

But you don’t have to quit you job to take the lessons of portfolio careers. It’s a mindset, as much as a way of working.

You could do this by taking on different responsibilities at your work. While you might have one core role, being open to taking up new responsibilities, filling in for colleagues, or backing new projects, can quickly widen your skills base.

You may even unexpectedly enjoy some of these new projects so much, that it leads into an entirely new career path.

Or you can branch out into side contract work, or even going full-time freelance.

Always check your contract first to see if you have a restriction of trade, or need clearance from your main employer. But a bit of work on the side is a good way to dip a toe into the independent pool, and see which of your skills is the most valuable in the freelance world.

To get started, think about your career opportunities by focusing on your skills, not career path.

Take a moment to note it down on paper. Rather than saying you work “in radio”, you might identify your skills as being audio production, audio recording, audience engagement.

Once you focus on the skills, rather than the job, you see how wide the possibilities are to use those skills.

There is, of course, a downside to all of this. Gig work can be poorly paid. Uber particularly is notorious for looking good on the face of it – but by the time you factor in wear and tear on the car, registration, petrol costs, you’re barely breaking even.

Not all freelancing jobs are made equal, and it pays to do some research into what the opportunities are in the areas around you. Even a cursory Google search is better than nothing, and it’s even better if you can find someone who’s willing to talk frankly with you about the pros and cons.

The other issue can be a lack of stability. When the pandemic hit, many companies immediately got rid of contractors, and those who they weren’t legally bound to keep around.

It’s all well and good to have multiple job opportunities, but if the economy goes wrong, it’s certainly possible for them all to dry up at once.

The answer to this can be a mix of many factors. A stable financial base, including savings. Specialising in a field where you’re difficult to replace. Networking. Having one permanent part-time job where it’s more difficult for the company to make you redundant.

But even with these drawbacks, the pros of a portfolio career makes it worthwhile for some people, and can provide the flexible lifestyle some crave.

And even those of us with no desire to freelance could benefit from taking on the portfolio career mindset, in order to make sure we always keep our skills fresh and in demand.

Listen to the full interview on the Cooking the Books podcast. You can find new episodes on Herald Premium, or subscribe on iHeartRadio, Apple podcasts app, or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you have a question about this podcast, or question you’d like answered in the next one, come and talk to me about it. I’m on Facebook here, Instagram here and Twitter here.

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