For the past few years, people have been talking about the gig economy — one in which organizations and independent workers engage in short-term work arrangements. For some, the term is a positive spin on what we used to call “precarious” work — a model where people make a living outside of the protected confines of a traditional employer/employee relationship. For others, though, the gig economy represents freedom from an economic model that doesn’t come with flexibility and work-life balance.

We used to assume that people naturally preferred a more stable employment model that came with benefits. But anecdotal and quantitative data tells us something else. Workers like the gig economy for its flexibility and stimulation, among other reasons. The gig economy is creating a marketplace for skills — and it’s a seller’s market.

Here’s the problem: Our labor market is still mostly built around the traditional employment model. If a company is hiring based on skills, it has less incentive to develop those skills in people who don’t have it and more incentive to go to the gig marketplace and find someone who does. Doing so further erodes the traditional workplace model and, ultimately, disadvantages everyone. Since traditional employers drive professional development, gig workers miss out on opportunities to grow their skills.

Future-proofing Professional Learning

Who other than an employer will shepherd workers’ development so that they don’t lose traction in the skills marketplace? How do we future-proof professional learning? The answer, at least in part, is the education system. It needs to become more flexible and introduce new models that are more accommodating to non-traditional learners and working learners.

Of course, there are challenges. A freelancer taking time to retrain isn’t just carrying the cost of the learning; he or she is also incurring an opportunity cost for time spent away from freelancing. As always with challenges in education, however, we can work to find solutions.

One approach is for educators to offer flexible scheduling and shorter training programs. Another is to create stackable micro-credentials that freelancers can use in the skills marketplace even as they work toward a larger credential. This approach would operate in place of the traditional model, where people earn diplomas or degrees before they can benefit from them.

Community Innovators

I’m not just calling for educational institutions to step up. Innovation incubators and other community-based organizations have an opportunity to support gig workers through offerings like group benefits packages. These group benefits could easily be expanded to include support for learning and development. I can imagine a scenario where one or more levels of government create a lifelong learning fund, with employers matching contributions. People could use it much like the education funds they create for their children. And, just like their skills, it would be portable and move with them across gigs.

I’d love to see North America lead the way on this front. So far, we’re not — but I am optimistic that we will come around. In Canada, our decision-makers are paying attention to the marketplace, where a full third of our workforce is engaged in “non-traditional” work arrangements. I expect that number to grow to 50% in the next several years.

We’re in a seller’s market for talent, and it’s booming. Failing to replenish our pool of talent will see it go dry quickly, so it’s crucial that we get upskilling and reskilling in the gig economy right — and soon.

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