April 23, 2019
On a Friday evening, a part-time nanny accepts her pay and waves goodnight to the family she’s worked with for several years. On her way home, she signs into her Uber driver account. She picks up a few passengers on her commute home: a freelance writer, a business consultant, and a house cleaner—supplies and all. Depending on who you ask, none, some, or all of these folks are considered part of an increasingly trendy workplace structure: the gig economy. And, that’s a problem.
All of these independent workers have one thing in common: they’re the boss of their own gig work. With contingent relationships with their employers, they set their own schedules, manage their own taxes, and find and fund healthcare and education independently. Depending on wages and type of work, not all of these workers have the ability to access the same resources, like training to receive a credential needed for career advancement, typically provided under a traditional employer-employee relationship. Since policymakers, researchers, and even workers don’t land on the same definition for gig work, it’s hard to quantify the population and produce evidence-based supportive workforce policies aimed at education and training.
The gig economy, in the most general sense, refers to temporary, independent, or contracted positions. The scope of jobs included in that definition changes depending on how contracts legally classify workers, where workers find work, and the nature of the job itself in relationship to the hiring organization’s main purpose. The Gig Economy Data Hub documents many different sources for information and research on gig work, and each major survey defines gig work slightly differently, leading to very different results. But, gig workers do share one unifying characteristic: they represent a workplace trend that distances employers from employees, placing more responsibilities, especially for career education and training, on individuals rather than corporations.
So how big is the gig economy? Is it growing? Answers to these straightforward questions are elusive, to say the least. That’s because we lack a consensus definition of what makes someone a “gig worker” and different researchers use different definitions. As a result, depending on who’s included in the definition and captured by research design, estimates of the size of the gig economy range from 3.8 percent to 40.4 percent of the U.S. workforce.
One of the most widely used studies on alternative and contingent work by economists Alan Krueger and Lawrence Katz estimated the gig population at 15.8 percent of the workforce, but they later rescinded that number, placing it closer to the Labor Department’s estimate of 10.5 percent. Articles about the gig economy come in waves, undulating from preparation, excitement, and concern for its growth to blanket dismissals of the economic significance of this kind of work.
Aside from design and definition limitations, research motives also affect those captured by the term gig economy. Freelancers and college-educated professionals tend to make more money and have more flexibility participating in contract work than low-wage contracted workers do. Corporations actually benefit from hiring contract workers, since it scales down operations costs by 20 to 30 percent. Because of this, private and corporate funders might have an incentive to define the gig economy broadly in their reports, or interview higher-wage workers who generally report more satisfaction with freelance work than lower-wage gig workers.
Government studies, on the other hand, struggle to capture every worker participating in gig arrangements, since many gig workers take on multiple part-time jobs for unpredictable amounts of time, and may not even identify their own work as gig or independent work—because, again, the definition lacks consistency and substance. In addition, the way researchers design and ask questions can sometimes lack specificity, getting answers to the wrong questions or unintentionally missing more casual gig workers.
Because of the fluidity, diverse categorizations, and research limitations with the definition of the gig economy, workers flow in and out of jobs that could be categorized as gig work. That makes quantifying this population extremely difficult. Gig economy workers could be part or full time; high or low wage; contracted on an app or through an agency; paid per item, per service, or per hour; and they could have any level of education. Anyone could be part of the gig economy—she might work at the desk right next to you. You may have even directly hired a contractor you’ve never met.
Lower-wage gig workers paid per service or per item, like Uber drivers, house cleaners, and security shift workers, face increased precarity. The overall extent of that precarity, and how that connects to changing individual and workforce education and training demands, varies. An individual preparing her career path won’t get far without preparing her education pathway as well. The gig economy’s structure requires that the worker acquire the skills she needs before starting the job rather than receiving training while working.
Current workplace trends of increasing credential requirements and contracting out more employees compound the growing variability of employment today. As more employers hire independent contractors, they often require more or different types of evidence the worker has the proper training and education, but since independent contractors cannot legally receive workplace-based training, they have less access to affordable and relevant educational opportunities. An IT contractor would have to predict what skills were relevant to the next job, find the training or credential to prove their skill level, and learn to market and present those skills—all without a secure salary or path toward upward mobility in that industry. Contracted child care providers have to navigate the same systems, but for much lower wages and without consistent or transparent guidelines for credentialing.
While a traditional employee career ladder sets workers up to move one rung at a time within a promotion system, the gig economy requires workers to jump from ledge to ledge, working their way through jobs, jumping off and back on independently in order to reskill or retrain. Without a clear understanding of the size and scale of this workforce trend, disparities between supply and demand in workforce education intensify, and current labor and education policies leave workers without clear steps toward building a stable, let alone lucrative, career.
Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!