Published on 2020/07/23

Virtual Workers and the Gig Economy

The EvoLLLution | Virtual Workers and the Gig Economy
As staff and faculty in higher education seek to prepare their students for a changing working world, they would do well to examine how precarious workers operate under their untraditional professional circumstances. After all, the gig economy is only broadening.

In 2012, my colleagues and I began studying the gig economy, its impact on the workforce and the skills people would need to thrive in this precarious world. We were curious about how remote work might provide opportunities in our rural and economically isolated community. We learned that it was forecasted that up to 50% of the workforce could be engaging in gig, virtual or freelance work by 2020.

Employers’ research and observations revealed that workers need to elevate their soft skills, which inspired our curriculum, the New World of Work 21st Century Skills. The modular style curriculum was vetted by employers and educators and has since been adopted by the California Community College system to be integrated in courses and workshops available its over two million students.

Since our inquiries nearly a decade ago, some predictions have fallen short, yet others have accelerated. A 2018 Freelancers Union study found that 35% of workers, or 57 million people, were identified as freelancers in the U.S. This is not quite the 50% predicted, but it is a growing number. Because of the coronavirus, many traditional workers have had to switch to remote work within their organization. While they are not 1099-ers (an American IRS tax form for autonomous workers), workers are adopting many of the same skills and mindsets as their freelancing colleagues. This crisis is changing the way work is accomplished, possibly for the long term.

The melding of work, life and school that we have experienced throughout 2020 has changed how we view work and the skills that we need to develop to be successful in the working world. The pre-cursor to our pandemic work environment was the gig economy, in which gig workers navigated short-term work from home (or cafes) to earn income while balancing other responsibilities.  Gig workers’ status is changing, but their methods of working and acquiring skills are ones that we can all use in our new virtual work world.

Faculty at Sierra College saw the need for skills specific to the virtual environment for both the workforce and entrepreneurs. To address this growing trend, our business department developed a virtual entrepreneurship course. Dr. Cyndi Dunn, an adjunct business professor at Sierra College states that, “Students can learn how to transfer entrepreneurial skills, such as marketing, project management and time management, into the virtual setting.” Professor Denise Bushnell adds that “21st century skills are even more critical in a virtual setting. Clear communication through email, phone and video conferencing is elevated as people lose the innate ability to read body language they have when they are face to face. Providing empathy and connecting with others become even more important when building remote business relationships.”

While there are clear distinctions between virtual entrepreneurs, gig workers and virtual workers, they also share many similarities. Virtual workers may be employed or contracted by an organization and work remotely. Gig workers may pick up short-term work through online platforms, such as Upwork, Uber or Task Rabbit. They might also engage in more traditional gig work, like the kind we see artists and entertainers do. Professor Dunn says, “Typically, virtual entrepreneurs run formal businesses remotely and engage in longer term projects than gig workers. The Sierra College virtual entrepreneurship course addresses these differences and teaches students how to structure contracts and establish long-term relationships with clients.”

The overlap in these types of livelihoods can be found in the skills and mindsets that people need to thrive in this work environment. As mentioned earlier, communication is critical in any work situation but even more so in remote work. Professor Denise Bushnell explains that “for a gig worker, an email or phone call may be their first impression instead of the traditional in-person meeting. Learning how to write succinct and impactful emails is even more important in the virtual world.  Virtual workers may find that facilitating effective meetings via video conferencing has risen to a priority skill. Workers in any of these categories must learn how to navigate professional relationships from afar.”

These are just a few examples of how the new professional world is altering skillsets and mindsets and how, as educators, we can prepare our students and ourselves for this rapidly changing landscape. We can embrace the opportunities within our suddenly remote work and learning environments by discussing changes with students. “Teaching students how to facilitate effective Zoom meetings or utilize other remote work tools is just one of the virtual entrepreneurship course’s many components,” Dr. Dunn continues. “If we want to learn new techniques for things like facilitating better zoom meetings, we find the resources to teach them ourselves and pass that information on to students.”

Lifelong learning is a 21st century reality, and most of us have engaged in it recently as we uprooted our work lives. We should acknowledge the challenges and triumphs we experience as we master new skills and share them with students. In addition to providing an opportunity to demonstrate adaptability during this extraordinary moment in history, it provides us with an opportunity to reevaluate our current education system and reimagine what learners will need to thrive in the future they will be entering. Lessons from gig workers and virtual entrepreneurs provide a glimpse of a not-too-distant future workforce’s needs.


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