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Universities Should Be Preparing Students For The Gig Economy

How well do universities prepare students to work independently in the Gig Economy? Today’s graduates are joining a workforce where the Gig Economy — including consultants, independent contractors, freelancers, side giggers, and on-demand workers — makes up an estimated 30-40% of the U.S. workforce. They’re also facing an economy in which alternative work arrangements are growing faster than traditional full-time jobs, and are only projected to keep growing. The recent news that the majority of Google’s workforce is made up of independent and temporary workers rather than full-time employees is just one example of the rapid transformation of the corporate workforce.

Despite these changes in how we work, universities have yet to integrate the study or practice of the Gig Economy into their curriculum or career services. Instead, they continue to educate and prepare students to become full-time employees in full-time jobs. That approach does a disservice to students who will graduate ill-equipped and unprepared to succeed as independent workers. To better prepare their students for the workforce they’ll enter when they graduate, universities can take three important steps:


Teach the Basic Skills to Work Independently

During the past seven years I created and have been teaching the first MBA course in the country on the Gig Economy at Babson College. As far as I know, it’s the only one of its kind. This needs to change. Many of the skills required to be a successful independent worker can be taught: how to create a business entity, how to manage a small back office, how to negotiate prices and consulting contracts, and how to develop and execute a marketing and branding strategy. These basic business school skills can be re-framed to prepare students to work independently and entrepreneurial to build a portfolio of gigs.

The students in my class have learned these skills and gone on to make significant changes in the way they work. I receive emails months and even years after graduation from students who have taken on side gigs to pursue work they love, quit their traditional jobs, started their own small businesses or consulting firms, moved to new locations, or who are traveling the world working remotely. They tell me how grateful they are to do work they choose, live near family or in a place they love, and stop commuting to an office. Even the ones who make the choice to continue to work in a traditional full-time job tell me they feel more prepared to work independently if they should need to, or decide to, in the future. These are anecdotal results from one course, but they portend the impact that teaching basic entrepreneurial skills could have on students’ professional and personal lives.

Expand Career Services to Offer Gigs

University career services focus on matching students with full-time jobs and, so far, have ignored the rising incidence, and importance, of independent work in the Gig Economy. I regularly hire independent workers to help with projects that involve research, writing and editing, as well as marketing and social media. I post those opportunities on a variety of platforms, from Up-work, to Craigslist, to LinkedIn. University Career Services are the least receptive to this project work. They are trapped in the mindset of thinking that work experience equals a full-time job and have little on offer to help students create a portfolio of work during the summer, or to help them take on side gigs during the academic year. Career Services must do a better job of helping students find work, not just jobs.

There are nascent signs of change. For instance, the University of Texas at Austin and Wellesley career services have begun educating students about the Gig Economy. The DePaul School of Music uses a student app called The Gig Connection to help students find gigs throughout Chicago, and Boston University has developed a Quick Job board, which includes short-term opportunities that range from raking leaves, to assisting in medical research studies, to developing a web site. Dedicated platforms and apps like these that help students find short-term projects, assignments, and gigs are still rare, but the ones that exist illustrate what the future of career services could look like.

Teach What They Practice

It’s paradoxical that universities are active and enthusiastic participants in the Gig Economy, yet only prepare their students to work as traditional employees in full-time jobs. Universities need only turn the mirror on themselves to see the work world their students must be ready to enter. Their own business models and practices are a case study about how employers are changing work and their workforce.

Universities rely on independent contractors. Like Google, universities have already built blended, flexible work forces made up of more independent workers and fewer full-time employees. This is most evident in the growth of adjunct lecturers, who make up 50% or more of the teaching staff at many universities. If universities are part of the trend of hiring significant numbers of independent workers, they should prepare their students for that future, too.

Most professors have side gigs. Universities expect and allow their full-time tenured professors to have side gigs such as consulting and advisory work, paid research, Board positions, and speaking engagements, to elevate their brand and augment their income. “The Tenured Entrepreneur,” who hustles for work on the side, is the university faculty norm – not the exception. Even among traditional liberal arts professors of English and History, for example, writing books, contributing to literary and popular magazines, and speaking are popular, and paid, side gigs.

Yet it’s not the norm for students. Too many students leave school with a transcript instead of a portfolio. Even small side gigs during the academic year, whether required as separate courses, or part of existing courses, create a way for students to experiment with a variety of work and acquire concrete skills and work experience.

Universities are going online . Universities are separating the need to be on campus from the ability to earn course credits and degrees. Higher education’s fastest growing new product is the online remote courses and programs that allow students to learn when and where they choose. The same desire for control and flexibility is driving the growth of remote independent work, and needs to be reflected in the opportunities that career services offers to students and that campus recruiting presents to graduates.

The Gig Economy is disrupting the way companies work, and the way they hire. Corporate leaders are increasingly choosing to work with independent contractors, consultants, and freelancer as needed, rather than creating full-time jobs filled with full-time employees. To succeed, students need to learn how to be self-employed, entrepreneurial, and how to run a small business, because increasingly, that’s what each of us is and will do for at least some part of our careers. By teaching their students what they themselves already practice, universities can do a much better job preparing their graduates for the increasingly independent workforce of today, not the traditional jobs of yesterday.

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