What’s in a term? Consultant, Contractor, Freelancer, & Locum

When I started out as a junior copywriter just over fifteen years ago, I heard terms like ‘contractor’, ‘part-time staff’, and ‘permanent staff’. Following the US subprime crisis, freelancers became popular than ever.

Many turned into what was later known as ‘digital nomads’. Individuals who made a remotely living by providing services through the Internet. These nomads would operate from cheaper markets like Thailand.

Freelance marketplaces like Freelancer (known before as getafreelancer.com), Upworks, Fiverr, and eLance, provide with the opportunity to escape the 9-to-5 and venture on their own.

A 2019 study commissioned by Upwork and Freelancers revealed that 35% of the US workforce identifies as freelancers. That’s 57 million US citizens! Freelancers contributed USD1 trillion, or 5%, of the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP)!

It’s no surprised that today we hear these terms used when talking about work and economic opportunities:

  • Consultant
  • Contractor
  • Freelancer
  • Locum

But what do they mean?


Consultants are individuals hired to identify problems, provide feedback, and make recommendations to implement the solutions. They could be working on an issue affecting the whole organisation. Some specialise in a specific area.

Consultants could be operating on their own or be attached to a consulting firm. Some examples of these firms are McKinsey’s, Bain & Co, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Accenture, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and even PEMANDU Associates.

As an independent consultant, you could be helping a food & beverage (F&B) company transition into the digital era. You could be hired for 3 months to see what’s the best way for that business to reach that goal, and how it would affect operations as well as delivery.

Some independent contractors focus on a specific function. Years ago I was a consultant attached to a social media analytics and digital media consultancy. What I did was make sense of the various digital datasets and make recommendations to clients using these social media data. With the analysis, my clients would roll out and plan data-driven campaigns and communication.

Currently, I am engaged as an in-house digital media consultant. Digital marketing itself is quite broad. Yet, my brief was simple: identify gaps, make recommendations, while keeping an eye on digital marketing trends. Things I work on include developing reports for our digital assets and the electronic direct mail (EDM) strategy. After all these are established, the organisation’s personnel will take over these roles and functions.

To summarise, consultants have a specific focus. It could be establishing processes. Sometimes consultants are called in to move things along. Other times they are called in to fix problems. Once the project is completed, the organisation’s personnel would take it up and continue with the operational task.


In Malaysia, contractors are often associated with construction or service providing firms. Yet, many companies hire contractors instead of personnel. Personally, I liken them as in-house non-employees who signed contracts for service instead of contracts of service.

Companies often engage contractors to carry out operational work. Sometimes they come in to fix a specific problem. Think of your usual plumbers and air-con service technicians.

However, this is where the line is drawn between the consultant and the contractor. Contractors solve the issue themselves. Whereas a consultant looks for the issues first, then make the recommendations.

While they work in-house, contractors often don’t enjoy the same benefits as employees. This includes paid leave, annual leave, bonus, and so on. That is why they are often paid higher or have different perks. Of course one can argue that contractors lack the ‘security’ their colleagues have.


Freelancers are self-employed workers who often complete tasks and projects remotely. They come in all sorts of specialties: copywriters, graphic designers, bookkeepers, programmers, virtual assistants, and data entry work.

You can find freelancers on marketplaces like Freelancer.com, Fiverr.com, Upwork, and Gigwork. Sometimes clients upload opportunities to work on LinkedIn and job-posting sites.

Freelancers are often paid a fee on a project or hour basis.

Unlike contractors, one freelancer could be working on multiple clients. This is different from contractors who often work exclusively with one client at a time.


The first time I heard of ‘locum’ was in 2013. Besides lecturing in a nursing school at a local university, my late friend would do locum at night in some clinics. Later, I would learn that apart from physicians/general practitioners, pharmacists also fill locum roles.

Locum – or locum tenens – is a part-time hire engaged as and when needed to replace the employees or partners. Arrangements can be revised

Author: Aldric

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