Coursera Insights: Freelance Skill Needs Are Evolving


What are the most critical job skills forecasted for 2023? In this article we share a recent Coursera review of critical job skills: The Job Skills of 2023 report that explores the fastest-growing digital and human skills identified by Coursera entering this year. The report draws on data from Coursera’s four million enterprise learners across 3,000 businesses, 3,600 higher education institutions, and governments in over 100 countries.

The Coursera annual report is characteristically brief, insightful, but not specifically focused on freelancers. So, after each fast growth category, the article adds specific comments on how these trends impact freelancers.

The fastest-growing skills are digital skills. The top ten overall fastest-growing skills are digital skills. The ongoing evolution of technology means employers are regularly seeking new digital competencies from potential hires while also reskilling existing workers.

What it means for freelancers. Tim Sanders of Upwork insightfully points out that enterprise leaders who recognize the power of digital transformation (DT) are typically strong advocates of open talent. And why not? They see the potential to create a flexible, blended workforce that is unconstrained by legacy challenges: they want access to the right people at the right time for their critical projects. As Sanders put it, they are the leaders of a new tribalism: they see the human talent cloud enabling them to curate their own team from the best available talent all over the world. While these leaders are committed to the continuing development of their own fulltime workforce, they understand that the ability to scale and pivot in resourcing depends on a smart combination of internal resources and expert freelancers.

The fastest-growing digital skills are changing more significantly than the fastest-growing human skills The top ten digital skills vary significantly from last year—only two have carried over year-on-year: data visualization and user experience. The human skills in demand remain steadier, suggesting an evergreen demand for skills like change management and communication.

Implications for freelancers. In the 2021 Global Survey on Freelancing, freelancers identified their top five skill weaknesses: (1) networking, (2) risk taking, (3) sensitivity to how others perceived them, (4) persuasiveness, and (5) ability to make business connections. These are all critical skills for freelance business success, above and beyond technical or domain expertise. They require practice and discipline, and the understanding that these skills are, in combination, existentially important to independent professionals. Remember: experts win the project for their technical skill and reputation, but keep and grow the work on the quality of their working relationships.

Skills centered on user experience are on the rise. With digitization across all industries accelerating, user experience skills are in high demand as consumers expect their needs to be met rapidly, effectively, and in a user-friendly way. Skills related to customer success tools and user experience design have seen increased interest.

Implications for freelancers. Leading subscription platforms like,, and are already providing independent business owners (IBO) with sophisticated tools for pricing, connecting with clients, strong peer networks, and help in expanding or improving their services. Expect to see more and more of this support provided to B2B freelancers by talent marketplaces as they better support freelancers in proactively managing their business and relationships. Also expect to see more crossover as independent professionals see the value of IBO business development services, and their support of an active and engaged community of peers.

Skills that blend technical expertise and project management are new to the list this year As organizations increase investments in digital skills, having skill sets that help organizations manage and support technical teams is becoming more important than ever to meet internal deadlines and objectives, ensure resources are allocated and managed wisely, and boost efficiency.

Implications for freelancers. Technical expertise is essential, but by no means the only requirement for sustainable success in project execution. Open-Assembly’s Barry Matthews notes that success requires the right mix of technical expertise, but also a shared vision, values and well-defined implementation playbook. The right education at the right time is crucial to creating a shared mindset, and an efficient process. When managed through a proactive project office – and managed with rigor, discipline and good organization – success is easily multiplied. More companies are bringing complete freelance teams together, often using the FAST methodology, to meet critical project needs.

Skills like data visualization and analysis are growing and can complement traditional human skills like people management and storytelling As organizations seek to yield value from data-led approaches in teams from IT to HR, being able to understand and use data to communicate effectively is becoming a must-have skill—regardless of career path.

Implications for freelancers. Good freelancers deliver the right technical solutions. Great freelancers do more; they help their clients to tell the story behind the innovation, and connect the dots. Too often what we imagine as “fads” are really failed change efforts on a grand scale without the skills to embed the new tool or tech into regular work. A critical skill is building support through data sharing and storytelling. GE found that change projects failed 70% of the time despite 90% having the right technical solution. Change is hard and failure is expensive. Smart companies must do more than plan for technical project accomplishment. They must anticipate and plan for the human implementation challenges as well.

Management skills to guide teams through change are among the fastest growing Managers have been under greater pressure since the pandemic and in a context of greater macroeconomic uncertainty. In response, organizations are recognizing the increasing importance of leadership and management skills necessary to effectively manage change at the individual, team, and organizational level.

Implications for freelancers. Fewer than half the freelancers (45%) in the Global Survey describe client project managers as skilled in working with freelancers. Managing blended teams requires a different management approach, a different relationship than the traditional employee, and different rules and limits. The freelance revolution is a project manager’s future best friend, but, managers need the tools, training, and coaching to manage a fundamentally different workforce than in past. Freelancers are volunteers, not conscripts, and a positive working relationship with the client project manager requires (1) regular contact and two-way feedback, (2) treatment as a “full” team member, and (3) recognition of the freelancer as a colleague rather than a subordinate. In turn, freelancers must understand the full set of challenges facing client project managers: significant, ongoing, pressure; developing new skills for managing and motivating a distributed, and blended, flexible, team; the struggle to attract and retain internal project talent; fears of budget cuts or project cancelation.

Communicating with peers, customers, and prospects is key for hybrid work Sharing information effectively is set to remain a vital skill for learners and organizations alike in 2023. These skills help organizations connect with customers, guide internal teams, and steer strategic discussions.

Implications for freelancers. Returning to an earlier point, freelancers in the Global Survey describe themselves as good listeners and communicators, but poor networkers: skilled working with people at all levels but spending little time thinking ahead about working relationships, mediocre in planning and time management but flexible and adaptable as situations demand, and better than average at conflict management. In short, freelancers have the skills to communicate and collaborate but that’s not sufficient. A successful collaboration also requires good process: clients and freelancers need to work out a system of regular updates, problem solving hackathons, follow-ups, and two-way feedback that supports project success, and builds trusting relationships.

Viva la revolution!

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