Digital Inclusion in the Gig Economy

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Bowling Green, Ky. (Augsut 29, 2019) – As advocates of broadband and related technologies, Connected Nation is steadfastly committed to ensuring that no one is left behind. Technology empowers communities and individuals by giving them a gateway to an abundance of online resources including job resources and opportunities.

Access to high-speed internet does not only provide Americans with information on job openings, it empowers Americans to carve out their own pathways to making a living – whether it’s through gainful employment or entrepreneurship.

But by far the biggest development for work in this age of technology is the rise of the gig economy—an appropriate topic as we celebrate Labor Day.

What is the Gig Economy?

The gig economy is essentially powered by the availability of high-speed internet and by innovative businesses that own technological applications that enable workers to more efficiently and effectively provide goods and services to consumers.

In April of 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a letter that recognized businesses that operate in the gig economy as virtual market place companies that operate “online and/or via smartphone-based referral services to connects service providers and to end-market consumers…”[1] Thus, for the most part, the gig economy allows workers to pursue part-time jobs or become independent contractors—leveraging job opportunities that may be more adaptable to their lifestyles.

For example, a single mother can choose to work as a rideshare driver only during the times her children are at school.  A disabled programmer can join an exclusive online network of freelance programmers for companies to hire for specific projects on a temporary basis.  The gig economy has also become a marketplace for people to find a second job or what the kids call “a side hustle” for additional income. Some examples of jobs in the gig economy include:

Ridesharing – Workers provide taxi-like services using their own vehicles and smartphone applications to manage transactions. Examples of rideshare applications include Uber and Lyft.

Delivery Services – Workers provide pick-up and delivery services using their own vehicles. Examples of delivery services include UberEats, Postmates, and Amazon Flex.

Programming – Workers are able to join a network or online portal of freelance programmers. Using these online networks, programmers can find contract work or they can be found by potential employers.

Freelance Writing – This industry allows for writers to find opportunities or be found.  It allows them to accept part-time opportunities on their own terms. Examples of freelance writing applications include Upwork, Problogger, and Blogging Pro

Handy Man – Workers join a website that highlights their skills and introduces them to opportunities available in the community. Examples of these include Handy, TaskRabitt, and Thumbtack.

The Digital Divide in the Gig Economy

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The gig economy has grown at a fast pace over the last few years. In fact the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017 that about 35% of workers (55 million) were operating in the gig economy[2]. This number was projected to jump to 43% by 2020[3].

According to the Harvard Business Review, “approximately 150 million workers in North America and Western Europe have left the relatively stable confines of organizational life — sometimes by choice, sometimes not — to work as independent contractors.”[4]

As the gig economy continues to grow, it is imperative that we continue to work towards bridging the Digital Divide for all Americans. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2019 Broadband Deployment Report about 21.3 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet service.[5] This is an issue that local, state and federal entities along with nonprofits such as Connected Nation continue to address via public and private grant programs, research, advocacy, mapping and investments designed to target unserved and underserved rural and urban communities for broadband deployment.

While most economists tend to describe the gig economy as simply a marketplace for independent contract (1099) or freelance work, Connected Nation believes they must emphasize the need for connectivity to participate in this economy. To ignore this need is especially disconcerting for individuals who live in unserved or underserved communities. The bottom line is  —  without reliable internet access individuals cannot participate in the gig economy as workers, consumers or entrepreneurs.

Why Participate in the Gig Economy

There are various benefits to working in the gig economy. One of those benefits is the flexibility and independence that workers derive from being able to work from the comfort of their homes or cars. Workers get to choose where and when they want to work. This is especially attractive to people who want to schedule work around family, face personal challenges that prohibit their ability to commit to a 40-hour week at a place of employment (disability, illness etc.) or even to allow time for other interests or pursuits.

However, it is tough to say whether the demand of the gig economy is a result of an increased desire to control one’s time or if it is simply because we now have the tools to do what was unimaginable a few years ago.

Additionally, the gig economy is giving consumers access to quality customer service and convenience. Because of this new marketplace,  you can have your food delivered from virtually any restaurant, you can have your grocery shopping done and delivered, you can have your dog walked, you can get help with developing your website, you can find a plumber  within minutes when encountered with a  plumbing emergency – the opportunities are endless. Clearly the gig economy is not only providing new job opportunities and services, but it is changing our culture and way of life as we embrace these convenient services.

Of course, the gig economy, like any emerging idea, comes with its limitations. Critics argue that because most of the jobs in the gig economy are temporary or independent contractor positions, employer s in this marketplace do not have to offer benefits to workers.  Some argue that the gig economy is giving employers a pathway to avoid providing benefits to workers.

Gig workers often have to plan their own retirement, purchase health insurance and pay taxes on their own.  This may be a daunting task for some who may need help with taking care of these essential needs from professionals including accountants.  It is evident that there is a need for further understanding, growth and policy considerations as we work to fully realize the benefits of this new market place.

One thing is clear— the gig economy is quickly becoming a vital piece in our ever-changing digital economy which is not going away any time soon. In fact, it is changing the way we view work and create balance in our daily lives. Additionally, it is expanding the job market in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago.

Given these variables, it is imperative for us to continue to find ways for it to work for all stakeholders including workers, employers and consumers.  It is equally important for us to ensure that everyone has access to high-speed internet so that they can take part in this new economy.

 

About the Author: Heather Gate is the Director of Digital Inclusion for Connected Nation.  Heather is responsible for strategy development and implementation of programs that impact Digital Inclusion for all people in all places.

She provides project management services including identification of program challenges and goals as well as day-to-day oversight and funding research.  Heather also serves on the Federal Communications Commission’s Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment (ACDDE).

 

 

 

[1] US Department of Labor (April 29, 2019) https://www.dol.gov/whd/opinion/FLSA/2019/2019_04_29_06_FLSA.pdf Accessed August 27, 2019

[2] Hyken, Shep (July 29,2018) . “The Gig Economy Opens The Door For Employment Opportunities.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/shephyken/2018/07/29/the-gig-economy-opens-the-door-for-employment-opportunities/#39dff0107662 accessed August 26, 2019

[3] Ibid

[4] Gianpiero Petriglieri, Susan J. Ashford, Amy Wrzesniewski (Mar-Apr 2018). “Thriving in a Gig Economy.” Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/03/thriving-in-the-gig-economy accessed August 26, 2019

[5] Inquiry Concerning Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications Capability to All Americans in a Reasonable and Timely Fashion, 2019 Broadband Deployment Report, FCC 19-44,  2 (rel. May 29, 2919) (reporting data as of Dec. 2017).

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