Last week saw the publication of two major studies of contingent work, but amid the hectic news cycle, a few simple but important findings got overlooked. For those interested in the future of work, it’s worth reviewing some of the basics we have learned about the gig economy.
One study was by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the other by the JPMorgan Chase & Co. Institute. The former was a supplement to a broader survey published in June, this time focused on specifically on online-mediated gig work; due to measurement problems, it was mostly considered a dud, although it did provide some corroboration of the size of the online gig labor market (about 1% of the U.S. households) and some intriguing demographic information on who is participating. The latter was an original study of payments for online-mediated gig work across four sectors: transportation, leasing of property, selling of goods, and service tasks.
Two key takeaways from the JPMorgan study:
1) Participation in driving has grown and spread, but other categories remain miniscule. While the prevalence of online-mediated transportation has grown substantially over the last 4 years, the other three sectors have grown much less and remain less than half as prevalent as the transportation category.
2) Prior experience still looks like a major barrier to entry for new workers — even for gigs. What makes driving more accessible is that so many Americans learn it as a life skill that benefits them in other parts of life, but can then repurpose the skill to earn income. It’s hard to think of another marketable skill that is to widely developed and so widely in demand. Most other service tasks can’t achieve this scale and leasing property requires significantly greater investment. Selling goods is a bit easier and sure enough, that category’s prevalence sat about halfway between that of transportation and the other two categories.
This suggests a simple takeaway about the role of at least online gigs in workers lives. While online gigs can provide workers supplemental income and flexible scheduling, and workers can use this to help bootstrap themselves into training or educational programs, online gigs aren’t themselves direct vehicles of economic mobility. They’re another tool that workers can use to advance their careers, but they’re no substitute for programs that directly increase their skills or build their relationships with employers.