Freelancing engineers and liminality

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The project studies how engineers working in temporary assignments and projects experience their work situation depending on work arrangement.

Today’s industry and working life are going through fundamental changes with regards to how work and people are organized. People increasingly work on temporary assignments and projects, which has led to a surge in the use of temporary work arrangements and time-limited contracts. This is happening in many industries, but the trend is particularly striking in technology- and product development industries in which engineering capabilities are at the core.

Liminality and different types of work arrangements

Recent years’ strong expansion of the technical and engineering consulting sector in Scandinavia gives clear evidence of the importance of this change, and there is also a growing trend of engineers going into independent contracting and “freelancing”, without traditional employment contracts. Many larger development projects have teams harbouring both permanent employees working in various types of line/project matrices, hired technical consultants, and freelancing engineers.

All these three work arrangements imply that individual workers are constantly in-between organizational structures, not entirely within nor entirely outside, in a constant state of borderline. Previous research has suggested the term “liminality” to capture this phenomenon. However, we do not know much about how variations in work contracts influence the way workers perceive their work situation and state of liminality, and the way they deal with this.

A collaboration between LiU and SNF

In this project, we study and compare these three categories of work arrangements in four different technology-/engineering intensive industries in Norway and Sweden (petrol, construction, automotive/aviation, and ICT). The study has a cross-sectional design, building primarily on qualitative interviews. The research will apply and develop current theoretical frameworks on “liminality” to better capture variations and nuances related to different work arrangements. The research contributes to more developed knowledge about an emergent industrial and working-life landscape that is increasingly characterized by temporary project assignments and freelancing competences.

The project runs 2020-2024 and constitutes one of the main studies in a larger research project on “Freelancers, independent contractors and the organization of work”. The project is a collaboration between SNF Centre for Applied Research at Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen, and the Department of Management and Engineering at Linköping University, Sweden. The research is funded by the Norwegian Research Council.

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