Is there a place in the gig economy for professional skills that don’t involve treating your own car like a taxi?
Because that’s the rub with the gig economy: it’s dogged by controversy and often associated with relatively low-skilled labour like becoming a ride-hailing driver with Uber, or a takeaway courier with Deliveroo. It’s characterised by short-term contracts – or none at all – and zero employee benefits or job security. Call it worksploitation. Last year, The New Yorker lifted the lid on the grimmer side of the gig economy and its conclusions made for morbid reading.
Then there’s the money. Online marketplaces like Fiverr offer digital services to the world for as little as $5. How many jobs would a freelancer need to take every day just to turn a modest profit? How much hard-earned expertise and knowledge would they expend on a project at that price?
So is the gig economy inherently bad? It doesn’t have to be. Independent contractors get to choose what projects to work on, when, and where. The nature of digital work is that most clients don’t expect you to turn up at their office. There’s nothing to stop you boarding a plane for somewhere sunnier, with a laptop in tow. Deliver quality work to deadline, and everybody wins. As Handy.com founder Oisin Hanrahan said at the recent Web Summit, “flexibility is what draws people to the gig economy”.
Matt Barrie, CEO of Freelancer.com, argues that independent contracting is the future of work. You might expect him to say that, but he’s spotted where the value lies. “Small businesses are turning to freelancers to crowdsource short-term projects in skill categories that they do not necessarily have the resources for,” he said.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The law of supply and demand could hold the key to surviving and thriving in the gig economy.
Where there’s mystery, there’s margin, as the renowned Venture Capitalist Dave Berkus memorably said. For many businesses of all sizes, digital technology is such a mystery. They know their business needs it to stay competitive and innovate, but they’re struggling to understand where to start. A survey by Censuswide on behalf of Ricoh found that workers want to use more innovative digital technology, but many feel they lack the skills. As long as that gap exists, there’s an opportunity for independent contractors with digital expertise who want flexible working arrangements and have the skills to deliver projects in anything from analytics, development, and design, to marketing and content production.
Want some proof that there’s more to the gig economy than low-paid, precarious work? Right now, the most in-demand jobs on Freelancer.com include graphic design, website design, PHP and HTML coding and copywriting. The site claims to be the world’s largest crowdsourcing marketplace for independent workers, so its 26 million-plus users are a significant sample size.
The nature of digital technology is ever-changing. So for a freelancer operating in the digital economy, that means setting aside time to invest in keeping ICT skills up-to-date or in learning new ones in fields such as coding, data science or digital design. Online Professional Certificates are ideal for this. Many have a part-time study option, so it’s possible to take them without disrupting your work.
For many independent contractors, working in the gig economy is likely to involve ad-hoc jobs and a regularly changing roster of clients. Good project management skills are worth their weight in scope documents. Apps like Basecamp or Slack ensure easy, transparent communication with clients. Time recording tools like Harvest or RescueTime track the hours worked on a project, so your billing reflects the hours you put in.
Polishing your digital skills will ensure your sales pipeline gets replenished regularly with a steady stream of new prospects. Make sure you can be found where companies go looking. Check what people are searching for, and adapt your profile to use the same keywords.
Will 2019 be the year you make the leap into the gig economy? It’s an option that growing numbers of professionals are likely to face before long. In what’s become a global market, the trick to standing out is to offer customers something more than they could get if they were to do it themselves, and to pitch on value and expertise, not on price.