You have probably seen the “help wanted” signs all over town and read the headlines about the shortage of employees across the United States right now. My colleague and co-author, Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University, has coined the term “The Great Resignation” to explain this phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much of the media focus has been on the shortage of people filling many of the most visible entry-level positions in retail, restaurants and the hospitality industry.
However, even before the pandemic began, there was already an ongoing chronic shortage of highly skilled professionals with skill sets (including technical expertise in project management, legal compliance, engineering, data analysis, talent management and a host of other functions) that companies need more now than ever before. In fact, according to Joseph Fuller, co-chair of the Project on Managing the Future of Work at Harvard Business School, in the spring of 2020 alone there was a reported 250 percent increase in demand for global supply chain expertise over the previous year. (Full disclosure: Idaho State University’s College of Business has also seen significant demand for its business management degree emphasis in operations and supply chain.)
To meet companies’ need for highly skilled individuals to work on specific tasks or projects, online high-skill “gig” platforms such as Upwork, Freelancer and 99design match freelance workers with companies that need their services. Unlike in the past, when highly skilled workers would more typically work full time for a single company or for themselves as consultants in an ongoing role, the high-skill gig economy matches workers to companies who need their skill sets for specific, discrete tasks. This means that some freelance (i.e., gig) workers could be working for multiple companies in any given year and sometimes more than one company simultaneously.
According to the Harvard Business Review, by the end of 2020 approximately one-third of the entire U.S. workforce reported working freelance. Whereas only a few years ago most gig work was considered a temporary way to make money between full-time jobs, a growing number of high-skill workers now report that they consider gig work to be a long-term career choice. Why? There are several possible reasons:
1. Family obligations
The pandemic has put strain on families with young children, who have had greater difficulty finding quality and affordable childcare outside the home. The pressures have been most acutely felt among women in the “sandwich” generation, who simultaneously have young, school-aged children at home and also responsibilities for caring for aging parents. Gig work has afforded many such workers the ability to work from home with substantial schedule flexibility while still staying engaged in a career and delivering quality work. High-skill gig platforms thus represent a valuable option for helping workers to achieve work-life balance and may ultimately contribute to reversing the steady decline in women’s participation in the U.S. labor force since the turn of the century.
2. Workers nearing the end of their career
Older workers who have been laid off and have trouble finding comparable employment in traditional firms have been using gig work platforms to connect with companies who need their hard-won experience and expertise for specific projects. Older demographics alone are likely to accelerate the trend toward more high-skill gig work because one in five Americans will be older than 65 by 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
3. The preferences of younger workers
According to Nithya Vaduganathan, a partner at the Boston Consulting Group, high-skill gig platforms have provided an especially attractive career option for tech-savvy young professionals. In particular, workers in the millennial generation have shown a preference for greater autonomy over their careers, which makes high-skill gig work appealing.
What does this mean for your business?
The full implications of the emerging high-skill gig economy are beyond the scope of a single article. However, as someone who studies teams in organizations, let me suggest one very important way in which your business can prepare to capitalize on this growing supply of highly skilled gig workers. Historically, employees have learned about an organization’s culture and processes by being physically present in corporate offices, attending meetings and social events, and seeing how business is done over time.
Gig employees do not have the same luxury. They may work for an organization for only a matter of weeks or months and may never even be physically present in company offices. Thus, I predict that businesses that employ the services of high-skill gig workers must simultaneously rely more heavily on full-time employees to provide real-time assistance to gig workers by adopting what I call “glue” roles. You have probably seen more than one person in your life who takes on glue roles, because people in glue roles do the little things that are essential to facilitating the work of others, but which seldom receive much attention or recognition.
In the future, glue roles at work will increasingly involve collaborating with and proactively anticipating the on-the-ground coordination needs of gig workers. Full-time employees may adopt glue roles by reaching out to answer questions and informally helping gig workers to navigate company processes that could cause confusion and slow down the pace of delivering task work.
I am actively researching this trend right now, because I foresee that organizations that acknowledge and reward employees for proactively taking on these types of glue roles will increase their odds of thriving in the high-skill gig economy of the next quarter-century.
Alex Bolinger is the Idaho Central Credit Union Endowed Professor of Management in the Idaho State University College of Business. He studies the dynamics of groups and teams in organizations, and he teaches courses in leadership, decision-making and negotiation, and entrepreneurship.