Thriving in a Gig Economy

How to avoid it or do well in it.

Posted Aug 12, 2016

Mark Warner, CC 2.0
Source: Mark Warner, CC 2.0

How do you feel when you read the phrase, gig economy? That's the term for replacing full-time benefited jobs with part-time, temp unbenefited "gigs."

Not so long ago, the term "gigs" referred mainly to musicians who had a one-night engagement.

Today "gig economy" refers not just to such iconic gigs as Uber driver, AirBnB lessor, TaskRabbit, Mechanical Turk. or UpWork freelancer. It includes the myriad companies, nonprofits, and government agencies that are converting traditional jobs into gigs.

So how do you feel when I say "gig economy?" Sure, some people relish the freshness of going from job to job and the ability to take months off. But many people feel fear. After all, "gig economy" signals insecurity, the opposite of what most people crave.

Alas, society's move from a stable-job economy to a gig economy is likely inexorable. After all, imagine you're an employer. You're faced with two options. In the first, you mainly hire people full-time 52 weeks a year with full and ever increasing benefits mandated by government (paid family leave, ObamaCare, ever higher Social Security and worker compensation rates, expanding rights for wrongful termination lawsuits, etc.) Or you could, as you deem appropriate, hire on an as-needed basis, renewing a short-term contract if necessary. Because you've hired only for a fixed short period, you are exempt from many of those government-forced payments, which saves you significantly. Plus, those you hire are far less likely to sue for wrongful termination. Wouldn't you, as often as possible, choose to hire on an as-needed rather than permanent basis?

What's a would-be gig worker to do?

Avoid the gig economy

One option is to avoid being a gig worker, Ways to do so:

  • Get trained in an offshore-resistant, under-the-radar but in-demand field with high barriers to entry, for example: autism psychologist, nurse anesthetist, program evaluator, intellectual property attorney, forensic accountant, big-data manager, grant proposal writer. In such fields, supply-demand makes it more likely you'll be offered full-time benefited work.
  • Become self-employed so you benefit from the gig economy's efficiency. Consider starting a cloneable, shoestring business. They have lower risk yet retain good profit potential.

Thriving in the gig economy

If you must be a worker bee in the gig economy, here are possible routes to thriving:

Government jobs. While even government is converting some formerly benefited full-time jobs into temp and project work, government remains the last large bastion of traditional stable employment for non-stars. Of course, stars too can find work in government.

Adopt a scavenger mindset. The uncomfortable reality is that in the gig economy, all but stars must, like a stray dog, spend much time searching for their next meal. You must make that scavenger mindset part of your weekly life: networking with potential employers, referrers, agency and in-house recruiters so you can line up your next gig by the time your current one ends. You can't afford to wait until your current gig ends because today, it typically takes weeks or months to land a job. In this seller's market for good jobs, employers can take the time to find the candidate who will add the most value for the least cost.

Use radical honesty. Employers would like workers they can trust but are skeptical of what job seekers say about themselves. In addition to it being ethical, you can get an edge over other applicants by having a crisp, ultra-honest story, cover letter, resume, and LinkedIn profile. Most important in the latter two are title, summary and, on LinkedIn, a current, well-lighted head-and-shoulders jpg 

If you're unlikely to be an extraordinary applicant, recognize that most people aren't and many employers would prefer a candid middle-of-the-road performer than a hypey BSer. So rather than portray yourself as a dynamic, self-starter yet team player who delights in exceeding customer expectations or "a strategic and visionary leader driving exceptional performance " (a real person's LinkedIn title,) describe yourself honestly, for example, "Reasonably competent family counselor who's bad at self-employment." Your summary might read, for example, "Moderately high success rate and client satisfaction rate with middle-class couples whose relationship is rocky or who have difficult children. Have had poor results with the multi-generational poor. Eclectic but with bias toward cognitive-behavioral strategies." The wrong employers will reject you; a right one will more likely hire you.

Include compelling collateral. Of course, artists and writers know to include a portfolio with their job application but others also should consider including collateral. For example, a would-be corporate salesperson might send a business plan that describes under-the-radar sources of customers and approaches to selling and to countering objections. An aspiring manager with no management experience might include a one-pager describing his/her approach to management. A fundraiser might send a flowchart of his/her process of converting a prospect into a planned-giving donor. Even if an employer initially screens applicants based just on a resume and maybe a cover letter, the final decision on whether to interview you can be abetted by compelling collateral.

On the job, try to convert your gig into a full-time, benefited job. Here, the advice is same-old/same-old but it's true. A small percentage of gig workers end up getting a more permanent job. Here's an example of what can make that happen. Late one summer, I was a guest on The Today Show and was waiting in a large area surrounding the studio's set. A dozen women (all in their early 20s, all size 4 or less, no men) were standing around doing nothing other than chatting with each other. One woman looked similar to the others but behaved differently. She was literally running around, from cameraperson to director to waiting guests. She came to me and asked if I needed anything. I said no but asked, "I'm wondering why you're so busy and the other dozen young people seem to be just standing around?" She said, ""Funny you should say that. We're all summer interns but just yesterday, I found out that I'm the only one who will be offered a full-time job." Enough said.

The bigger picture

Of course, the above tactics may help an individual but don't address the societal problem: Good, stable jobs are going away and not everyone has the capability or drive to do what it takes to thrive in a gig economy.

So I believe the humane response is for government to provide a basic guaranteed income and health care for everyone. In addition, government must encourage our educational institutions to replace some of their arcana-larded curriculum with practical education on becoming successfully and ethically self-employed. Government also needs to promote an Assistance Army: encouraging people to hire one-on-one help: with newborns, as homework helper, technology tutor, or elder companion.

Finally, most people will need to learn to live on less and to realize that the life well-led is far less a function of nice housing, car, and clothes than about contribution, creative outlets, and kind relationships.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.