You’d be forgiven if your immediate, instinctive response to the very phrase ‘the gig economy’ is negative. It is a concept which, to put it mildly, has acquired a lot of baggage.
Like its more modern but equally maligned cousin, zero-hours contracts, much of the concern and criticism of the gig economy labour market is that erodes in-work protections in favour of the financial interests of employers, replacing the stability of long-term employment with the inherent uncertainty of short-term, ad hoc ‘gigs’.
Some of this concern and criticism is merited. Particularly with regards to low-skilled work – taxi and delivery drivers are the typecast examples most frequently put forward – the worry is that the ‘Uberization’ of what were previously steady professions is exposing thousands of workers to financial uncertainty and insecurity while firms reap the ‘efficiency gains’ of paying people per task, not for their time.
In its worst guises, the ugly description of it is exploitation.
However, while the practice of factory workers being called into work at short notice on a zero-hours contract and then not knowing when their next shift will come is relatively recent, the gig economy is as old as labour itself.
When we talk about the gig economy, we are in truth talking about anyone who gets paid per piece, per project, per appearance, and so on. It covers independent contractors and freelancers of every description from every sector of the economy, and from every rung on the earnings ladder, too.
Those independent consultants you hear about charging four-figure sums per day are gig economy workers, too. I doubt you hear them complaining about exploitation much.
The tech sector has enjoyed a particularly long and close-knit relationship with what we now refer to as the gig economy. On one hand, people with specific in-demand technical skills like software programming or systems architecture have long found it beneficial to offer themselves as ‘guns for hire’, particularly back in the days when they were unlikely to find stable employment anywhere other than at big IT firms.
On the other hand, the internet has been a key enabler of the emergence of the broader gig economy we know today. This started as far back as the 90s when sites like Craigslist and Upwork first started to advertise paid-for opportunities. Upwork has gone on to be a key mover in what we might call the remote or digital freelance market, i.e. paid-for gigs that can be done anywhere via a laptop and an internet connection.
Again, we see a close relationship with technology, as the growth of this particular market has been fuelled by the development of dedicated cloud-based platforms that allow people to complete specific tasks, whether it is web development or blogging or social media marketing.
But what about the tech sector itself? Back in 2017, Accenture published an oft-quoted study that found that 85% of tech executives planned to increase their organization’s use of independent freelance workers. The reasons why no doubt still chime strongly with tech recruiters – the shortage of suitably skilled talent to fill permanent positions, the fact that many executives quizzed by Accenture felt that corporate bureaucracies (presumably including in recruitment) stifled productivity and innovation, despite being placed under considerable competitive pressure to increase innovation in the workforce.
The gig economy, therefore, offers to solve two key challenges facing tech recruitment – the shortage of talent, and the corresponding need to reach as far afield as possible through the mechanism of remote working, and the confines of bureaucratic structures which can often act against the demands of dynamic, fast-paced innovation which in so many ways characterise the modern digital world.
That is not to say that hiring on a gig-to-gig basis is the answer to all the tech sector’s needs, or that it is even desirable in many circumstances. We are increasingly seeing, for example, how non-tech firms are looking to hire the likes of app developers and cybersecurity specialists in-house on a permanent basis, underlining just how important such expertise is becoming to core strategic and operational objectives.
But when appropriate, when specific skills that are not readily available are required on a short-term or project-to-project basis, turning to the freelance and contractor market makes sense.