Using Consultants in the “Gig Economy”

Martin Fairbank
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One of my first summer jobs as a teenager was playing the organ for weddings at various churches. It was my first experience as a freelance employee, or what musicians call playing "gigs".

After university, I worked full-time in the paper industry for thirty years. I'm now a freelance consultant, in what some have called the "gig economy". This term refers to new models of business done primarily on a freelance or temporary basis, made easier thanks to mobile phones and the internet. Well-known examples of contractors in the gig economy are Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts. The result of such business models is often cheaper, more efficient service.

The profitability of the pulp and paper industry goes up and down for various reasons, including the state of the economy, changing business trends and tariff wars. I have lived through several occurrences of downsizing where employees were let go, and there was often a freeze on hiring consultants at the same time, which was a little short-sighted. Just as Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice could not obtain his pound of flesh without a drop of blood, no matter how carefully a downsizing exercise is done, it's impossible to eliminate positions without losing some valuable skills.

Hiring a consultant costs money, but asking for the same results from overworked employees that don't have the skills or the time to do the task properly could be costlier in the long run. And it's a lot easier today to find and hire this temporary labour, with email, webinars, collaborative software and working remotely. It's become an appealing way to make a living for those who seek flexible hours or the independence of being self-employed. Consultants are often former employees that understand your business needs very well. If you can clearly define a project's objectives, find the right internal contact to manage the consultant's work, and come up with a mutually beneficial contract, you may end up with a way to get things done that costs less and is more efficient than using existing full-time employees.

Here are a few examples of good opportunities for the pulp and paper industry to seek help from a consultant:

  1. When a consultant provides a skill you don't have in-house, to solve a one-time issue. This could be a combination of knowledge and experience – technical problem-solving or getting into a market that's new to you but well-known to the consultant.
  2. When a specific expertise is only occasionally required, and not available through current employees, a consultant can provide the resource on an as-needed basis. An example could be maintenance on a unique piece of equipment or using a retired engineer to help design a new installation.
  3. When extra manpower is needed to help with a specific task because you are short of time, especially when there's a deadline to meet. Examples could be applying for a government grant or preparing a report for a regulatory deadline.
  4. When you need teaching or coaching for current or new staff, to enable transfer of knowledge and ensure continuity and quality standards. This may be faster and more focused than relying on existing employees to do the training.

So the next time you're putting off a project because of lack of internal resources, think about which of your outside contacts would happily take on a new gig!

Martin Fairbank, Ph.D. Martin Fairbank has worked in the forest products industry for 31 years,
including many years for a pulp and paper producer and two years with
Natural Resources Canada. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience in
process improvement, product development, energy management and lean
manufacturing, Martin currently works as an independent consultant,
based in Montreal. He is also an author, having recently published
Resolute Roots, a history of Resolute Forest Products and its
predecessors over the last 200 years.

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Martin Fairbank Consulting

Industry Experience

  • Pulp and Paper Technology
  • Materials Recycling
  • Biorefinery Development
  • Manufacturing
  • Government Subsidy Programs


  • Technical Writing
    . White Papers
    . Grant Applications
    . Explain technical concepts
  • Scientific Editing
    . Review of articles for publication
  • Project Assessment
    . Evaluation of Technologies
    . Project evaluation for funding agencies
  • Pulp & Paper
    . Conventional and emerging technologies