An increasing number of U.S. workers are turning to the gig economy for employment. A recent survey by the McKinsey Global Institute revealed that 20 percent to 30 percent of the U.S. labor force is now made up of contractors and self-employed workers. This increase can be attributed to a few primary factors: the changing nature of work in the knowledge economy, continued underemployment and the proliferation of digital platforms that have made part-time work more accessible than ever before.
The gig economy is often discussed in broad terms, but its workers can find themselves in very different positions. For the 56 percent of workers who are financially reliant on part-time or independent work, the gig economy looks very different than it does for those who participate by choice. Of those who are reliant on this work, 57 percent have incomes of less than $30,000 and 52 percent have high school degrees or less. These workers also tend to be dissatisfied with their income level; the number of hours they work; and their opportunities to learn, grow and develop. While we often think of gig economy workers as independent contractors, choosing when and for whom they want to work, the reality for the majority of gig professionals stands in stark contrast.
In fact, the phrase ‘gig economy’ emerged during the 2009 financial crisis when unemployed professionals needed to string together many part-time jobs. This paints a very different picture than the millennial who uses gigs for work-life balance and freedom from a 9-to-5 office job.
While the gig economy is clearly providing value to employers by lowering operating costs, many gig workers find themselves in a precarious financial position with too few opportunities for stability or advancement. With the gig economy likely to grow, business leaders must find a way to support and develop all gig workers to ensure that this source of labor remains sustainable.
Online learning and the gig economy
Higher education still represents the surest path to career success. But for those working in the gig economy, college as it has traditionally been defined isn’t always an option: it’s expensive, it doesn’t fit with their schedule, and the educational content is often not geared to the skills needed in today’s workforce. Additionally, gig workers in search of on-the-job training are often out of luck: companies typically do not extend access to professional development opportunities to part-time employees.
Online learning is especially suited to help part-time and independent workers. By breaking from the mold established by the traditional four-year college, online learning platforms can collaborate more closely with the business world and offer a mix of academic and non-academic credentials that align with companies’ changing labor needs and today’s in-demand skillsets. Online education also molds to the learner’s schedule, which addresses one of the fundamental differences between part-time and full-time workers—the idea of the fixed schedule. As people in the gig economy stay flexible in their often fluctuating and non-9-to-5 schedule, online courses give them the option to “learn as they earn.”
Part-time workers seeking to secure traditional, full-time employment can choose courses across a range of disciplines and difficulty levels that will help them build skills that align with the needs of potential full-time employers. Courses in cutting-edge topics like computer science, data science, cybersecurity and analytics can open doors to lucrative careers in fields where jobs are growing exponentially.
By offering affordable, accessible ways to deepen and build skills, online learning can help gig economy workers transition from participating out of necessity to gigging by choice and finding a path to higher income. For example, Craig Jones, a marketing specialist who found himself in transition after a corporate restructuring, launched a business as a freelance web developer after taking an edX course series in HTML5. By featuring his certification, Jones says he has “gained some hands-on credibility” with employers.
The potential benefit of online learning to gig economy workers and our economy is clear. But, delivering on that promise requires the continued support and participation of the business community.
Increasing opportunity for a growing workforce segment
In many ways, it’s easier than ever to secure and manage part-time or independent employment opportunities: just tap on your ride-sharing app, get in your car and start making money. While this new accessibility of part-time work is a good thing, we can’t let this novelty cause us to lose sight of the millions of part-time workers whose livelihood depends on these jobs – and are looking to increase their economic mobility.
Advancing our economy depends on our ability to provide the growing number of part-time and independent workers with access to the type of learning and development opportunities that can help them gain financial security and improve their lives. By making education more affordable and accessible – and by offering learning that directly aligns with the labor needs of businesses – we can provide more value to both workers and employers, making the gig economy work better for America.
 Pew report
 Pew study: graphic
 McKinsey survey p. 109