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Run TaskRabbit, run! What if there were no jobs anymore?

Matthew Brew
Matthew Brew

This was the title of an article in the Economist on 5 July 2018 under a wider theme titled "The World if...". 

Whilst it’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach to all topics covered under such an opportunistic heading, with the point being to draw things to an extreme, it does stress some of the most obvious consequences of a transformation of how we work and organise ourselves, popularly lumped under the title "the gig economy". For more on that topic, please visit our previous posts "Learning in the gig economy" and "How to reach learners in the gig economy".

The Economist article elaborates on various slightly outrageous predictions like the case for McDonald outsourcing 100% of its restaurant jobs. Everyone working at a McDonald's are no longer employees of either McDonald's nor the franchisee. Rather, they bid for positions through TaskRabbit, which is one of the larger online labour platforms in the market (hence the title) along with platforms like Upwork, Freelancer and PeoplePerHour, to name but a few. The result in this fictional story is “The First Fortune 500 Company With No Employees".

Whether or not this will happen (I leave it to you to ponder on that point), it's an uncontested fact that a rapidly growing number of the workforce no longer fit under the traditional employee label. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in the US has just announced a much awaited reading on the question: How many people work in the gig economy? They found that 16.5 million people are working in "contingent" or "alternative work arrangements" and this is more than 10% of the US workforce!

McKinsey released a report a couple of years ago titled: Independent work: Choice, necessity, and the gig economy, which found that more than 160 million people in Europe and the United States — equivalent to 20-30 per cent of the working-age population— were engaged in some form of independent work.

The McKinsey report also found that contingent workers were more than twice as likely as non-contingent workers to be under 25, an interesting demographic observation we covered in "Highlights from the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey" recently.

In the UK, the number of people working in the gig economy is estimated at 5 million. That's more than 15 per cent of the total full and part-time workforce. Imagine - one in six jobs in the UK are in the gig economy - this is massive! Next time you're out and about, consider how many of the people you encounter are probably not employed.

There are some interesting comparisons in this Guardian article, pointing to 80,000 Americans employed in the coal industry and 150,000 in the steel industry, both of which are subject to intense debate and controversy recently due to trade tariffs. But both these industries employ vastly fewer people than the gig economy. It does lend some perspective to how the gig economy has ballooned lately, sometimes without us catching it. But it's also true that a lot of jobs that have existed for a long-time and would normally fall into the freelancer or temporary worker categories, would now be included under the much more exciting title "gig economy".

There is an update due from BLS in September where they announce the number working through electronically mediated services, which we'll make sure to read and report on!

We make no attempt to analyse the political consequences of the transition in how people work. But as companies start outsourcing a lot of non-core functions in the transition to gig working, training is one area that needs to be picked up. And we do have a quite a lot of first-hand experience working with some of the world's leading gig economy companies like Uber, and so we feel well placed to comment on what some of the business challenges are and how they can be addressed. 

These are some typical questions that come up when working with a dispersed workforce:

  1. Quality: how do you ensure that your dispersed workforce is aware of and trained on the product or service you are offering?

  2. Productivity: left to ones own devices, you're effectively signing away some control that was typically exercised through in person monitoring. How do we ensure to keep productivity up?

  3. Scalability: one thing gig companies have in common is the leverage that technology brings into their business models. A business model quickly becomes global and therefore requires the correct support to succeed on many fronts at the same time. Face-to-face training falls shortly very quickly here.

  4. Loyalty and engagement: when those water-cooler moments disappear and the bonds become increasingly fluid between the company and the worker, how do you mitigate costly churn in your workforce? How do you create a sense of belonging and pride?

In our next post on this topic, we'll be digging into these challenges and try to offer some concrete advice on how to address them.

At eduMe, we're at the forefront of working with companies in the gig economy - this is how we've built our product. We are planning to lean in, embrace these transformative changes and contribute to more opportunities, choice, and a growing economy (and leave the office fob in the drawer).