There is a lot of talk at the moment about the future of work. Some educated and pragmatic, some misinformed rubbish, and some others who take a more extreme view and paint a terrifying image of the working future of our kids. Where does the truth lie? It can be hard to tell through all of the noise – but, let’s just take a breath and think things through a little before we all jump on ‘the full-time job is dead’ bandwagon.
Firstly, I am not here to debate the influence of automation or robotics. The erosion of jobs that are being replaced by automated systems is a very real concern and one that needs action to prepare for. John Sheridan is a good person to listen to around this topic and I very much enjoy our debates on the matter.
My issue is that all I seem to be reading/hearing at the moment is that in the very near future, we are all going to be independent contractors so let’s just give in and accept it. It’s exhausting! Every person who is a successful freelancer or who has a stake in that industry is continually sprouting how green the grass is on the other side and how becoming an independent contractor is the movement of our time so you better get on-board before you get left behind… whoa, slow down champ.
There are a number of sources stating that 40% of the workforce is/will become participants in the gig economy. What this really means is that some will be freelancing as their primary source of income, some will moonlight as a freelancer outside of their primary job to increase their disposable income, some will drive for Uber on the weekends and some will rent out their spare bedroom on Air BnB. Many have extrapolated this statistic to mean 40% of the workforce is now primarily an independent contractor and so will the rest of us. Soon.
‘What holds for some, does not hold for others’
There are many benefits to being an independent contractor; flexibility, autonomy, choose which projects you work on, greater freedom to set your own rate and the ability to set your own work/life balance. Perfect. This suits a portion of the workforce who are skilled and experienced in high demand areas or need the flexibility around family life etc.
But what about the rest that don’t want the stress and instability that comes with finding your own contracts. What about those that want to buy a house or know that their kids school fees will be paid. What about those who have ambitions in highly technical professions such as STEM based industries or professional services who want continuous training, mentoring and to hone their craft in a supportive, team environment. Independent contracting is not for everyone. In fact, independent contracting is not for the majority! The majority of people are in full-time work who like the stability of protections and benefits afforded to working full-time which is why it astounds me that we have to talk about this.
And I am sure there will be some who read this that could argue that they have never had these issues while being a professional freelancer but do you speak for all of you? It may work for you but can you tell me it works for everyone? Being a vegan is apparently good for you with many health benefits but I’m never going to become one – I like steak too much.
Great. Now I’ve offended freelancers and vegans. It is going to be a rough week.
‘Casualisation of the workforce becoming a self-fulling prophecy’
What concerns me is the number of people that I talk to that are just accepting the rhetoric as the way it is now. I hear heartbreaking stories of people that were forced into freelancing because their job was outsourced and now they can’t make ends meet. I am all for the people that choose to be freelancers. The ones that have years of experience, that have made a name for themselves and realise that their skills are in high demand and can make a good living from it. I just have a problem when people are pushed into it because of redundancy or lack of available jobs. These people don’t choose that life, they have to do it to keep food on the table. The more people push freelancing as the new way, the bigger the problem becomes.
I talk to hundreds of business owners who give up their loyal, valuable employees because of the financial risk of inconsistent work. They believe that any skill set they need is resident in the freelance community but how short-sighted is that! In professional services your people are your competitive advantage! They are your brand, your quality assurance, they are what makes you stand out from the crowd.
But business owners aren’t given much choice on the matter. Our industries have been forged through a ‘kill or be killed’ mentality where you do what you have to in order to beat your competitor before they beat you. Cut costs, increase efficiency, throw the baby out with the bathwater by letting go of your best asset – your people, all in the name of getting ahead.
With less-skilled jobs disappearing, it is now more vital than ever that we have a highly skilled and experienced workforce ready to meet the future challenges. That takes mentoring, training, processes and procedures to bring our young and eager up to the mark. This comes from stable, full-time work and personal investment in your team. It comes from businesses doing more than just putting ‘collaboration’ in their marketing material and actually putting it into action. And it comes from finding new, innovative ways of growing, developing and allocating your staff to produce the most potent capability for your business and for industry.
So, let’s not confuse the place of the gig economy. It has a place and is here to stay but please don’t confuse it with how we will all work in the future. We need to remain focused on the true issues. We need new policy and innovative methods to empower business owners to safely grow their businesses with reduced risk and create the new, stable full-time jobs that are going to grow our future workforce and meet the uncertain future that we all know is coming.