Are High-Skilled Workers the Future of the Gig Economy?

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Why you should care

Because the future of work is flexible, and not just for Uber drivers.

Welcome to Number Crunching With OZY. In this occasional series, we ask businesspeople, experts, celebrities and thought leaders to discuss a single number that is most important to them. This time: Jody Greenstone Miller, co-founder and CEO of Business Talent Group.

The gig economy— from Uber drivers to Handy cleaners — is the latest way that those with low incomes are trying to make a living, but with no fixed hours, uncertain income and likely no benefits. Well, it’s not just for the low paid.

The number of independent “gig” workers earning above $100,000 per year has risen 64 percent since 2011.

The average full-time independent worker is earning roughly $65,300 annually in 2017 — substantially above the U.S. median family household income. That’s according to the annual State of Independence in America report from MBO Partners, a research and professional services firm specializing in independent workers. “Once a small minority,” says the report, there are now 3.2 million gig workers earning over $100,000 per year, a 5 percent increase from 2016. Meanwhile, the total number of gig workers rose just 2.8 percent.

Project-based labor is starting to redefine how work gets done at large corporations.

It’s not that Uber drivers are now getting paid megabucks, but that high-skilled workers are increasingly opting to go independent. MBO describes a “barbell effect” of the gig economy: “On one end, there’s a growing mass of highly skilled workers who are sought after for specialized talent … on the other end, there’s a growing population of people who do what might be defined as commodity work — driving for Uber or picking up work on TaskRabbit.”

These data illustrate the most important trend shaping the economy today, says Jody Greenstone Miller, co-founder and CEO of the Business Talent Group, which manages a network of independent business executive consultants turned gig workers. Some high-end work is actually “more suitable as project-based,” notes Greenstone Miller, because workers “tend to enjoy it. They are doing it more often out of choice than from necessity, so it is more attractive to the talent population.”

Project-based labor is starting to redefine how work gets done at large corporations, Greenstone Miller adds. “If companies don’t figure out both how to tap into this pool and integrate it into the way they think about getting work done, they won’t be able to get work done.” It’s not a simple transition, though. Companies need to figure out how best to rapidly bring in and assemble teams of new workers around a specific project before disbanding them, which “requires a more disciplined form of management,” she says.

Indeed, understanding how best to manage these so-called flash organizations is one of the most important new challenges companies face today, Adam Grant, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told OZY in July. And John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco Systems, once went so far as to say that “soon you’ll see huge companies with just two employees — the CEO and the CIO,” with everything else project-based. Greenstone Miller doesn’t go quite that far. Some sectors are more advanced than others, she says, such as the life sciences, where the production of “each drug is essentially a new project.”

Of course, on the other side of the “barbell” in MBO’s research are the low skilled and the low paid, which still comprises, in aggregate, a larger total number of gig workers. Across the world, policy battles and lawsuits are grappling with how best to protect vulnerable workers who aren’t technically full-time employees.

But next to no government economic data on the extent and nature of gig work makes coming up with the best policies extremely difficult, says Vikrum Aiyer, head of public policy at Postmates, who previously served in the Department of Commerce. It’s important to acknowledge, then, that “the universe of the gig economy is not just the Uber drivers,” says Greenstone Miller, so “if we only set policy based on one segment, we would [limit] the gain from having a truly efficient gig economy.”

OZY’s educational wing, OZY EDU, is touring the nation’s colleges to bring important conversations into the classroom. First up: The Future of Work. We’re exploring how everything from automation to the gig economy is reshaping work, and how the education system can keep up. Read more.

Text & reporting by James Watkins; video editing by Kevin O’Dowd.

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