Among the many changes that we’re experiencing in today’s world of work is the rise of what’s being called the “gig economy.”
Until recently, only jobbing musicians looked for “gigs.” Increasingly – through desire or necessity – many non-musicians choose to live by doing “gigs” too, and this trend is producing the gig economy.
The gig economy is one in which organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements. So temporary positions are common in the workplace, and some studies suggest that “gigging” will soon become the way in which most people make their living.
Estimates of the size and growth rate of the gig economy are imprecise – not least because of the “casual” nature of the employment and the resulting “shadowy” official details available on employment and income tax. However, a has predicted that, by 2020, 40 percent of American workers will be “independent contractors.”
According to the Online Labour Index – a measure produced by Oxford Internet Institute researchers Professor Vili Lehdonvirta and Dr Otto Kässi, which tracks the gig economy – between May and September this year, the number of advertisements posted on sites such as Freelancer.com and PeoplePerHour increased by nine percent. The Index reveals that growth was fastest in the U.K. (at 14 percent). Elsewhere in Europe, the growth was 7.5 percent and, in the U.S., it was six percent.
Gig economy champions say that it provides flexible hours and additional, alternative incomes. It’s encouraging a range of new, often innovative, economic activity – especially as the internet fosters digital capitalism by providing low-cost outlets to a mass market. It promises a future of empowered entrepreneurs, flexibility and boundless innovation – and allows people access to goods and services they couldn’t otherwise afford.
Opponents say it’s creating a large class of low-paid, disenfranchised workers – with no job security and little chance of escaping the “low pay silo” – who’re circumventing tax and regulation systems. It bids down wages, offers no form of job security, and places risk – a source of stress and mental health problems – onto “ordinary” people.
It doesn’t come with pensions, sick pay, holiday entitlements, or parental leave. Mortgage companies are wary about lending to people with insecure work. The one-on-one, non-unionized, “gig relationships” between the contractor and contractee are easy to abuse and hard to monitor.
Whether or not you support it, the gig economy is a growing fact of working life. Consequently, workers are becoming project-focused, not organization-focused.
This implies they’re less interested than “traditional” employees in their employer’s organizational culture, ethics and goals. It also implies that in-house L&D professionals face new challenges in ensuring that these workers embrace those relevant cultures, ethics and goals – both in terms of delivering relevant learning materials and activities, and identifying incidents of non-compliance.
Tim Drewitt, a digital learning strategist and Product Innovator at Kallidus, comments, “Given the short-term nature of gig engagements, L&D must think differently about how it on-boards new contractees.
“In my discussions about whether L&D even has a responsibility to support this audience, opinions have been expressed that contractees should be responsible for keeping their skills and knowledge up to date and provide their own evidence of compliance to requirements – since, in the gig economy, we’re looking to buy-in unique expertise, not help build it.
“But, if L&D is to support this audience, we must keep solutions simple, straightforward and short – giving the contractee a realistic, proportionate amount of time for learning. Self-paced learning, especially micro-learning, seems well suited to this audience. Solutions can be accessed on a mobile device, so the contractee can seize otherwise unproductive moments to consume any necessary learning.”
Nick Hindley, Associate Director, Performance Improvement and Innovation (RSMM and AIM) at global contract research organization PPD, says, “L&D’s approach to this issue should be similar to that used when leading on global projects. All project teams have challenges – notably that the team members often report to a line manager who’s not the project manager and who’s hired, leased or loaned them out, short term. These project team members are similar to gig workers.
“As an L&D professional, I work with project managers to identify a learning agenda for each person regardless of the length of their expected tenure. The agenda will, ideally, offer the individual the chance to develop while working on the project. This may be a chance to lead, operate a new system, do some training or quality checking, and so on.
“I find this approach generates real enthusiasm for the project role – and is followed by good to excellent performance. So, the challenge for L&D in a gig economy is to look for personal development that the individual will appreciate and will add to the productiveness and success of the business.
“In a gig economy, those in greatest demand, attracting the highest pay, will be those who’re most adaptable to new organizations and operating environments – so other areas that must respond to this move will be secondary and tertiary education. Educational establishments must instill, inspire and inculcate in students an ability to learn effectively, respond and adapt to new environments.
“From my time as a college lecturer, I appreciate this could be a significant challenge for many in this sector. It’ll also require a focus on fostering students’ ability to learn rather than slavishly teaching them ‘content’.”
Looking at the gig economy’s effect on in-house L&D from a different perspective, Drewitt observes, “The gig economy offers the L&D department a chance to try new things – via L&D specialist contractees – without the cost of contracting with its usual suppliers.
“Not only will these usual suppliers likely have larger overheads but they may also lack the deep level of expertise that an individual gig worker can offer. Whether it’s developing a single innovative component for a blended program, or creating an exemplar module using new cutting-edge technology, gig workers can bring something unique to the party – and for a much lower cost, thus permitting experimentation that may never have happened before.”