The gig economy is arguably the future of work. Today’s workers are not just laboring in nine-to-five jobs anymore. They are increasingly gravitating towards flexible, gig-based work. Gig-based work — independent contracting, freelancing, on-demand work (think Uber or Doordash)— is taking over the US economy, as we increasingly depend on niche services.
According to a 2018 survey by Gallup, 36 percent of all working Americans have a gig work arrangement in some capacity. And a staggering 29 percent of all workers have an alternative work arrangement as their primary job. That means roughly 57 million Americans are turning to gig-based employment. New graduates are entering an economy where they can participate in part-time, gig-based, roles; which are growing faster than traditional full-time jobs.
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If you step back and think about it, this growing trend of a gig economy makes sense. Gig workers have access to more flexible working conditions, and have more control over their schedule. Gig workers are also given more autonomy over the types of work they decide to do, in contrast to traditional full-time positions where work is assigned to an employee. Despite the emerging popularity of gig-based work, most universities have yet to make any substantial changes in their curriculum to accommodate this new trend. This means that many students will graduate without the knowledge necessary to thrive as a consultant or gig worker; careers which will comprise a growing number of jobs in the future.
Earlier this year, Wake Forest University launched the “Communication in Entrepreneurial Settings” course, which explores different types of work arrangements such as consulting, co-working, gig working, as well as other alternate forms of work. The course teaches students how to navigate these types of work arrangements, and how to communicate effectively in gig-based roles. Students learn about the history of the gig economy, are taught how to evaluate which potential gigs are right for them, and learn how to use communication tools common among gig workers. This shows that some universities are starting to realize the importance of gig work in the future of employment, but most universities have failed to catch on to this trend, or to understand why it requires special attention to ensure that students are ready for it.
Teaching the Independent Gig Economy
The independent gig economy is fundamentally different than traditional work. Whereas in an office setting, workers need to be familiar with things like general office rules, how to communicate in a high-paced work environment, and how to work effectively with management, gig workers have completely different needs. Independent workers face unique problems: how to establish a business, how to manage their taxes, how to pitch their services to prospective clients, and how to work with a company effectively on a short-term basis.
These skills come up again and again in many different types of gig work. Consultants, for example, need to know about pitching services to clients and managing taxes. On-demand workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers have similar needs as well as the need to procure clients. If students are to adapt to the future economy, they will need to learn these skills early on. Even though at the moment, many students who graduate university will go on to a traditional job, there’s a big potential that gig-based work may take over their job in the future. Furthermore, preparing students for the gig economy will allow them to make extra income on the side, without having to take on another traditional job.
The first step universities should take is to integrate discussions over the gig economy into existing courses, as well as teach new courses about the gig economy. For example, students in business management programs might be taught about the career path of management consulting, and how it differs from traditional full-time work. The same goes for people enrolled in communications and marketing degrees; who may end up becoming freelance writers or digital marketers.
In addition, schools could follow the lead of Wake Forest University, and create brand new courses to teach students about the gig economy. Such courses could explore gig work in more depth; ensuring students graduate with a full image of how the gig economy works, and everything they need to know to thrive as a gig-based worker.
Provide Gig Counseling in Career Sessions
Most universities today focus on helping students find the right full-time job for them. Full-time employment affords a consistent salary, and allows newly graduated workers a way up the traditional career ladder. However, it might be time for universities to begin mentioning gig economy as part of these discussions.
A student who enters into a career counseling session may believe that full-time work is their only option, and this misinformation may limit their ability to advance their career in the future. For example, many workers who desire to find a full-time job can benefit from taking on consulting roles while they are searching for their perfect job, which allows them to build and strengthen their portfolio. And gig work is perfectly suited for new university graduates who are looking to earn income, but who are only just starting their job search.
Thankfully, some schools are starting to recognize the importance of gig work in career counseling sessions. At the University of Texas-Austin, students can get advice on gig work in the school’s career center. The program at the University of Texas-Austin introduces people to a wide variety of gig roles which they may want to pursue in the future. A similar program now exists at Wellesley College as well, and other institutions are beginning to follow suit.
Gig Working for Students
Even if a student does not intend on working as an independent in the future, knowledge of the gig economy may still be useful in finding a ready source of employment while attending school. According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 43 percent of full-time and 81 percent of part-time undergraduate students were employed in some capacity in 2017. Many students work during college to help them pay for their rent or other living costs, and to save up to begin paying off their student loans. However, working in a traditional part-time or full-time position can be difficult to manage while pursuing a degree.
Students who learn about gig working in school are given another avenue with which to pursue income, rather than a traditional part-time position which comes with a larger time commitment. Gig working gives students flexibility over when they work, which is a big help when balancing work, classes, and homework. Gig working also gives students autonomy over the type of work they perform. They may even be able to find gig work that lines up with their course work. For example, a student pursuing a marketing major could provide consulting services to a copywriter while working through school.
Gig economy work is definitely not for everyone. Many gig workers earn lower salaries than their part-time or full-time counterparts, and gig positions usually do not come with health or retirement benefits. But with the extra autonomy and flexibility, gig-based work does offer some unique benefits. Students need to be given the option to learn about gig work,because it should be up to them to decide which type of work is best for them and their needs.
The gig economy is changing the way people find work. Whereas people would previously seek out an employer to find a full-time or part-time job, many companies now offer gig-based work to people who want to contribute to their organization. This work comes in many different forms; driving for Uber, consulting on business strategy, marketing or coding as a freelancer, delivering groceries for Instacart. And In the future, we can expect the types of gigs and the need for gig workers work to rapidly expand.
Students need to be prepared for this change. Universities — who teach students about career paths — need to take a leading role in educating people about the future of gig work. Similarly, bootcamps and other vocational institutions, which an increasing number of people depend on for a quality education, need to make students aware of the future of work and the gig economy. If higher education does not adjust its views and its standards students will graduate with an obsolete view of what it means to be a worker in the 21st century.
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