Are universities doing enough to prepare students for the gig economy?

Gig economy
Many full-time employees participate in the gig economy with side hustles, but universities generally prepare students for full-time employment instead. Source: Shutterstock

The rise of the gig economy is transforming the way we live and work, enabling people from all walks of life to earn money in a flexible way that suits their time and convenience. 

The National Association of Counties (NACo) has this to say: “If you’ve ever been a freelancer, a temp or really any sort of independent contractor, you’ve participated in the gig economy. 

“‘Gigs’ in this sense are essentially short-term or project-based work, and ‘gig workers’ are independent contractors hired to do those jobs. The gig economy is essentially based on corporations who contract these people for temporary jobs, rather than hiring for permanent positions.”

While not a new concept, reports note that the field is growing, seen from examples such as the rising number of Uber and Lyft drivers these past few years. 

A McKinsey & Company report found that up to 162 million people in Europe and the US – or 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population – engage in some form of independent work. They note that gig workers typically fall into four segments: 

  • Free agents, who actively choose independent work and derive their primary income from it; 
  • Casual earners, who use independent work for supplemental income and do so by choice; 
  • Reluctants, who make their primary living from independent work but would prefer traditional jobs; 
  • The financially strapped, who do supplemental independent work out of necessity.

As the gig economy provides people with alternative sources of income, and the option to complement their nine to five jobs with side work or commit to gig work on a full-time basis, should universities look into preparing students for the gig economy?

Preparing the future generation for the gig economy

Gig economy

The gig economy presents people with the opportunity to work from wherever they are. Source: Shutterstock

In the Harvard Business Review, author and adjunct lecturer at Babson College, Diane Mulcahy, said that universities have not integrated 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”, which she opined is doing a disservice to students who will be ill-equipped to succeed in the independent workforce. 

She proposed that universities should take three important steps to better prepare students for the workforce: 

  • Teach the basic skills to work independently

Mulcahy said many of the skills required to be a successful independent worker can be taught (e.g. how to manage a small back office, how to negotiate prices and consulting contracts), and this can positively impact their personal and professional lives upon graduation. 

  • Expand career services to offer gigs

University career services tend to focus on matching students with full-time jobs, and are generally unreceptive to project work. Instead, they need to do a better job of helping students find work, not just jobs. 

  • Teach what they practice

Universities are active and enthusiastic participants in the gig economy but only prepare their students to work as traditional employees in full-time jobs. Universities often rely on independent contractors and thus, should also prepare their students for independent work. 

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