Interview 11: Janice Simmons

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Janice Simmons is a business executive with Accenture.

Tim: Could you tell me a little bit about your background is in dealing with staffing temp or contingent work?

Janice: Throughout my career I’ve had opportunities to hire people in the contingent and temp workforces. As a consultant, sometimes we need to bring in additional people to help us on a temporary basis.

When I was an executive in industry, I did the same thing, whether it was bringing in consultants or contingency staff for a short period of time to help out on a particular project.

Tim: You’ve been doing this for a number of years. There’s a lot of talk right now that this contingent work thing is new. Is that your experience?

Janice: Not really. What is new is that more people are seeking this kind of work as their preferred way to be in the workforce. More people are taking the lead in saying “This is how I want my life to be. I want to be able to come in and out of work. I may want to be able to work for 10 months in a row and take 2 months off. This fits in with my goals and how I want to develop professionally.” More people are interested in contingent work and wanting to do it instead of saying, “I’m just going to do it for a little while until I find the permanent position.”

Tim: There’s a lot of discussion right now that says technology is destroying jobs. But the way you speak about this suggests people are choosing to go into this kind of work. Do you feel people are choosing this work for lifestyle reasons or being forced into contingent work arrangements?

Janice: I think it’s a combination of things. Some people may find themselves in that space because of changes in jobs or changes in a company. Some people who find themselves there don’t necessarily want to be there. But I think other people are choosing it. My perception based on my friends, colleagues and the folks I’m working with are more people are choosing it intentionally.

Technology is becoming more and more a part of how we get work done. I’m currently working with the hospitality industry quite a bit. We’re seeing more robots in hospitality every year. For example, Hilton has a new concierge that works alongside of a human concierge. The name of the robot is Connie the Concierge, and she works with humans. She can process information faster than a human being. And so having a robot working alongside of a human you get both the personal touch as well as the power of a computer that can analyzed vast amount of data more quickly than a person can to answer a guests question.

Pizza Hut has a robot that they’re trying out in Japan called Pepper. You order from the robot, it can answer all kinds of questions about the menu, nutritional information, etc. It is so cute that you want to interact with it. Your order is instantly placed and you pay the robot with your phone. It makes it fun for people to come in and to interact with a robot.

I’m actually pretty optimistic that what we’re going to see with technology is some of the more mundane tasks that people can master quickly and don’t want to do will be done by machines. And new jobs will be created that are more focused around making great decisions and working with people and inspiring people to do new things. I think as robots become more and more a part of businesses, you’re going to have to have people who can care for those robots, who maintain those robots. Machines can continue to do stuff that is dangerous for people to do or do tasks that are mundane for people. This will open up new work that is more interesting. It’s going to create different kinds of jobs for us.

Tim: What is unexpected or surprising about the current discussion around contingent work?

Janice: One of the things that will have to change is the way companies engage in the gig economy. A lot of really big companies that I’ve either worked for or worked with have some very cumbersome processes in place to be able to bring in gig economy workers. If there’s somebody I want to bring in to do a certain piece of work for a certain period of time, there are many, many hoops to jump through, often in procurement and legal processes.
So one of the things I think people are finding as they’re trying to become consultants is a lot of big companies have very difficult, complicated processes for approving contractors.

I believe companies are going to have to streamline their processes if they want to be able to use more flexible external resources. They will need to become more agile, more nimble.

Tim: How do the people you have worked with handle the volatility of contingent or project-based work?

Janice: The individuals I know who do this well are really good at planning and budgeting. They know the basics of how much money they need to live and cover their bills, and they have a great marketing plan for their services. What I found is people who tend to be very successful are quite networked with other entrepreneurs and other people who do this kind of work. So that if one finds an opportunity that is bigger than their own capacity, they can bring somebody else in.

Successful independents have a number of different ways that they are making money. They might have something like an Uber on the side of their main business, and then they have an iron in the fire to develop in another area. To be successful in this space you have to be very entrepreneurial, look to expand your network, and know how to creatively use the tools available to you.

Tim: How should workers be thinking about work differently? How should they be thinking about the jobs they take on?

Janice: My suggestion is that people need to think about it in a number of different ways. Most people want to use their skill set because they’ve built up capabilities and want to to use those capabilities to do great work. But they need to get creative about how they can apply those skills today. They also need to think about where they want to be two or three years from now in terms of capability and in terms of happiness. And then they need to look for areas that are going to become hot. Maybe it’s is getting deeper in their current field are or maybe it’s broadening their capabilities.

I think every individual has to say to themselves, “What am I great at today? How can I make a great impact, build my reputation, and build my brand? And what should be next for me in two or three years?” I don’t care if people are permanently employed in a company or doing gig work, these are the questions that everyone should be asking because work is changing so quickly.

I think in the next five to ten years we’ll see massive changes in work, how work is done, and who’s doing work. New jobs will be created. We all need to be thinking not only what we are great at today, but what do we need to be great at two or three years from now. And we need to seek out assignments and projects that will give us those capabilities.

Tim: What skills do you think people need to have to be successful today?

Janice: One skill is being able to build trust very quickly by being transparent. I call it being radically transparent by sharing your process, how you work, how we work together, and sharing all that up upfront. If you’re good at building trust and being very transparent about how you want to work, how things will get done, you get clarity with your clients very quickly, get shared understanding, and are able to move very fast. These things that are important to me when I look for folks to bring on my team.

The ability to move fast, to be agile, is very important. The quicker you are, the better able you will be to take advantage of opportunities that come up. That’s incredibly important. It’s networking, and it’s keeping your eye on what’s coming next so you can learn about it and take advantage of it.

Tim: How should businesses be thinking about and working with talent differently?

Janice: I work for Accenture and what we’re working with a lot of clients on right now is exactly this question: How do we think about work and workers differently? As a company, I need to start thinking about work in chunks. If I’ve got an important chunk of work that can be done, or needs to be done by somebody from the outside, how do I package or chunk the work and then find the best possible people to do this work in my external network. Businesses already have to work hard to find the right talent to bring in.

There are going to be more what I would call “talent broker” kinds of positions inside of companies or in external companies that can link a bigger organization with talent from different sources. If I were a large company, I’d be thinking about how do I get connected to talent brokers who can bring in talent for specific projects. And that talent broker could be a website. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. It could be an exchange site where I can go and say, “I have this work to do. Who can do it for me?”

The other thing that is interesting for companies to think about is what we’re calling the “liquid workforce.” These are people who want to come into the workforce maybe for two or three months to do a project, and then they want to maybe do something else for two or three months with another organization. Or maybe they want to work for six months and then they want three months off, and then they want to come back in and work for six months. It becomes this flexing in and out of projects and roles. Companies are going to have to be able to manage that flexing and give people more choices in scheduling. I’m working with a hospitality and entertainment client right now where they schedule resources for months at a time. They’re thinking about to attract people to work the time slots that aren’t the most attractive. They are asking lots of questions. Can they let people bid on when they want to work? Can they offer premiums for doing some of the jobs that are less desirable jobs or the jobs that are at less desirable times of the day? Maybe people can earn additional money or additional benefits. They’re playing with how to use this liquid workforce and people’s desire to come in and out of work, and their need to make certain jobs attractive for people. They are only thinking about permanent positions.

Every company needs to think through how are they going to set it up so that we are bringing in the best of the best. Every company needs to consider how well networked they are. Whether or not they are chunking the work in ways is attractive to people.

Many companies go out and give work to the lowest bidder. So they may be able to find high quality work done by the lowest bidder. But some tasks may be different. Companies may have to offer a little more incentive for people. Companies need to know the work, know the workforce that’s out there, and know what has to be done in order to attract the right kinds of people.

We just finished Accenture strategy graduate research study where we went out and for the last two or three year interviewing recent college grads in the US. One of the things that they’re consistently telling us over the last couple of years is most people don’t want to work for large companies. In fact, only one out of seven in our study said they wanted to work for a large organization. If you are a large company, how are you going to make your organization or your work attractive to these recent grads? How are you going to make it attractive for them to work in your company when they’re more inclined to want to work for smaller companies where they feel they are able to learn quickly, work on more interesting tasks, and rise through the ranks?

Tim: Where are companies on the learning curve? Do you think companies are in a position where they’re ready to make these changes, or are they still very much in a learning phase?

Janice: I was just talking to some colleagues about this question a couple of weeks ago and we came up with companies in two big buckets. Some of the more traditional companies that have been around for a long time are really having to pivot to this new way of thinking about work, the gig economy, and workers. They realize what’s going on and they’re working hard to pivot to the new. And it’s not always easy when systems, and processes, and mindsets are set-up for a different way of working.

And then there are folks who are actually creating the next new way of working. This is the “Uberization” of work that emphasizes flexibility of what work, how much work, and when work is done.

There are a lot of very well-established brands and companies who are working very hard to pivot to the new. And then there are lots of leading edge companies who are creating whatever the next new is going to be and taking it direct to the people.

Tim: What sort of system changes do we need? What do you think we need to be internalizing as a society as the nature of work changes?

Janice: That’s a great question. One thing I think is terrific is people will have new opportunities to use their skills and capabilities. That’s very positive for people because we all want to use our unique skills and capabilities. We need to be ready to embrace and support those new opportunities.

As an independent, whether you’re an entrepreneur or a small company, you do need to think about healthcare. Maybe we’ve made some strides in that direction already with the Affordable Care Act, time will tell. And I think we need to make it easier for people to access opportunities for themselves. We need to make it very obvious to folks where the work is and help people get connected. Those are the two main things I’m thinking of today. There are probably deeper questions than I probably have thought about right now.

Tim: I appreciate your perspective on the importance of accessing new work opportunities. I’m from rural Wisconsin where folks tend to be farmers, in the skilled trades, or have a very small business. Their skill sets are incredibly entrepreneurial, yet there is often this pressure to leave the work that created these entrepreneurial-minded people in order to get a college degree and a white-collar job. Meanwhile a lot of people in business ecosystems are saying they really need entrepreneurial people. That seems like a missed opportunity. Similarly, I do some work with marginalized communities in Milwaukee, and a lot of these folks are also very, very entrepreneurial. Yet there is this push towards acquisition of jobs that in a lot of ways just aren’t there.

How do we make a system that recognizes and values these entrepreneurial skills for what they are and connects them with work?

Janice: I do think there’s needs to be a collaboration. How do we make it really easy for both the companies and the people to find each other and connect? That’s going to be critical because there are opportunities out there.

For a lot of people that I know who think about stepping into the gig economy, their biggest question is how to find work. Especially if they have specialized skills or if they want to broaden develop new skills. We all need a fair amount of certainty and stability in ours life. For some people it’s a lot more than others. But how can people get into the network and consistent get opportunities? I think is one of the critical things we have to continue to solve for. And I think it’s happening. Creative people are finding creative ways to connect people. And I think that will continue to happen. It’s interesting.

The other thing I found is people questioning is what they really need in terms of education and learning. Is college the best path to success that we make it out to be? There are wonderful opportunities out there for folks without degrees, such as service technicians in auto dealerships. These are amazing high paying jobs where they use computers all the time. They are troubleshooters. They solve problems. It’s not always getting dirty and spending your life under a car. Cars are so much more sophisticated. Those jobs have changed significantly. There are lots of options for people with varying specialties and education.

Do I need a four year degree? Do I need to go to graduate school? It depends on what I want to do. I can make a great living in a lot of different ways. What’s going to make me happy and what’s going to be able to give me the life that I want? How can I keep learning and growing? These are important things to be thinking about as well.

Tim: I think you just identified that one of the potential systems changes is a change in perception of education and understanding how it’s important and when it’s important. A 4-year degree is great, but the real takeaway for me was learning how I learn.

Janice: Learning how you learn best is critical. When you know that about yourself, you are able to handle new situations that you may not be familiar with. Some companies are really great and they’ll give you tons of interesting learning opportunities that help and support development. Some companies don’t do that so much anymore. So I think you’ll find more people taking classes on their own and teaching themselves new skills.

Tim: Last question for you. What core challenges, and/or opportunities in this world of work are you focused on or do you find most exciting?

Janice: What I find most exciting are the opportunities people are going to have in this new world. There are going to be new jobs created, and these jobs are going to be really interesting. Being able to leverage and work side by side with machines—the human-machine interaction—can make the human part of our work much more exciting. People will also have new opportunities as we think about the liquid workforce and working in chunks on a project-basis. There’s going to be a lot of opportunities for people to broaden their skills, to deepen their skills, to do more rich and meaningful work.

Tim: Great. That’s everything. I really appreciate you taking the time for this interview.

Listening Sesssion 2: Independent Workers

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Gig Work Project hosted a facilitated gathering to explore the challenges and opportunities that independent workers face. The session was attended by 19 past, current, and aspiring independent workers, ranging from high school students in an entrepreneurship program to seasoned professionals.

In addition to offering time for participants to get to know each other formally and informally, the session included facilitated exploration of three main topics as follows.

Current Tools & Practices

We asked participants to list the tools, practices, and resources they find helpful for independent work. Themes that came up during our discussion of the most important tools available to independent workers centered on two main points:

  1. The importance of relationships for bringing in new business, including specifics like word of mouth referrals and actively making new connections for yourself and others.
  2. The importance of the “soft stuff” that we don’t always address when talking about business: health, wellness, inspiration, and connection.

When participants were asked to vote for the one tool or practice they felt was most important for them, the vast majority of people selected an item that reflected one of these two points.

You can see the full lists that were generated, including the votes for most important tool (denoted by the * icon) below.

Desired Tools & Solutions

Next, we facilitated conversation on another question: based on your biggest challenges, what do you wish there was a tool/program/solution for, but there isn’t currently? Participants were encouraged to share realistic solutions they could imagine being created, as well as magical tools for situations they don’t know how to address.

The ideas shared in this session reflected a much wider range of concerns. Some of the themes that emerged included:

  • Creating formal structures and organizations that enable independent workers
  • Ensuring everyone approaches work in helpful ways (ex. making decisions with input from the people affected or giving honest feedback)
  • Improving our own effectiveness (ex. giving us discipline or making us look deeper inside)
  • Addressing systemic issues (ex. changing how credit scores and felony records affect business prospects)

You can also see a full list of the ideas shared below.

Sales Assistance for Independents

Our final prompt reflected some of the themes we noticed in our other work. In our survey of local independent workers, “Sales” was the number one area for which respondents indicated they would like assistance. The importance of networks and direct relationships was also a recurring theme, making it hard to hire someone for direct sales assistance the way one might hire an accountant or administrative assistant. We wanted to learn more about what “sales assistance” could mean for independent workers in a network-driven landscape.

Participants emphasized how important it is for independent workers to articulate their value. The group converged on a process including:

  • Getting feedback from others about strengths
  • Developing a genuine story about an individual and what the individual has to offer
  • Being prepared to tell explain value in an elevator pitch type verbal format
  • Creating a video and/or other materials to share stories and value more broadly

While the group agreed that having an authentic story was important, some participants raised the point that showing may be more effective than telling. Context and audience were felt to be important in making this determination.

Conclusion

Many of the challenges identified through group discussion at this gathering present opportunities to better support independent workers. The varied degree to which participants utilized available tools reflects an opportunity for greater education around existing tools and practices that can support independent workers. There was also a clear consensus that training around the identification and articulation of one’s unique value would be helpful.

The importance of the kinds of self management skills identified in A New Skills Landscape came through in discussion, reflecting the fact that independent workers have both the opportunity to apply these skills for greater life satisfaction and the challenge of a harsher learning curve in these areas in order to be successful.

Some of the challenges participants shared don’t yet have clear solutions. There may be room for innovation in creating social and business structures that support independent workers and their clients, but such solutions would need to take into account the importance of direct relationships, the unique value propositions of individual workers, and the kind of self-direction that makes independent work appealing for many professionals in the first place.


Notes from the Facilitation

Tools currently in use:

Sales/Getting Work:

  • **Word of mouth
  • *Connecting others
  • *Referrals from existing clients
  • *Centers of influence
  • *Cross promotion
  • *Neighbors
  • Getting coffee
  • Linked-In connections
  • Social media
  • Promo codes
  • Sandler sales trainer
  • Media (broadcast)
  • Apps
  • Professionalism
  • Project events – good food & projects

Business Processes & Organization:

  • *Prioritization
  • Google Docs
  • YouTube / other internet
  • Organizing your emails
  • Mentors/advisors
  • Get out of office & go to public place
  • Facebook
  • Data visualization of connection of people and/or events/tools/items
  • Detailed proposals
  • Separate business email from social email
  • Todoist
  • Brand identity

Accounting:

  • QuickBooks Online
  • Excel
  • References from others
  • Save all receipts in a folder organized by month
  • Accountant
  • Keeping receipts
  • Tax write offs
  • Post expenses and income daily/regularly – don’t let it pile up

Time Management:

  • **“Eat that frog” – do the thing you’ve been avoiding first
  • *Toggl – online time tracking
  • Careful calendaring
  • Google Calendar
  • Google Drive
  • Templates
  • White board & post-its / time log
  • Set calendar appointments for to do tasks
  • If it takes less than 5 minutes – do it now!
  • Outlook Calendar on smart phone
  • Proprietary systems (made up system)
  • Self awareness – know how you work best
  • Scheduled disconnected times to focus exclusively on tasks/projects
  • Strive to not work on weekends
  • RescueTime (online tool)

Legal:

  • Informal (free) advising
  • Sharing of templates with others and download/internet research
  • Legal Zoom
  • Copyright
  • Sharing contract templates
  • Don’t fuss until you’re making real money
  • Ownership
  • Business publishing

Other:

  • ***Music
  • *Seeking outside (not invested) counsel from people who love/trust you
  • *Making sure you’re mentally/physically healthy
  • *Read! Stay up to date any way possible. Learn.
  • *Wandering
  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Exercise
  • Talking with people
  • Yoga
  • Unpaid, fund versions of work-like projects
  • Eating at the same time every day
  • Work/Life Balance
  • Staying away from “vampires” (people who drain energy)
  • Listen to anxiety

Tools We Want:

  • Remove differentiation between W2 employees and 1099 contractors
  • Critique of entrepreneurship as “the way out” for poor (minority) populations
  • Alarm or shock collar for people making decisions about others not in the room
  • Tool that differentiates between urgent and important
  • Work-Life Balance tool/alarm
  • Tool or list to see what work is available: marketplace / flea market for projects
  • Business structure or “stable” can plug into as an independent worker
  • Upon delivery of a project-end report, automatically get honest feedback
  • Get rid of credit scores – make loan decisions by judging the business
  • Simple way to know when something is coming up for clients
  • Well-respected community of independent workers where everyone does get work and you can vouch for each other
  • Training on how to market what you’re really good at
  • Tool that allows you to see future value (if you use support from person x, you know it will be valuable)
  • Business plan success predictor
  • Tool to make you look deeper inside
  • Tool that gives you discipline
  • Non-BS calendar: shared view of all activity in a sector
  • Project concierge: people who hustle for you, so you can just produce
  • Place to drop in and bounce ideas around
  • Felonies don’t limit job options
  • Networker – pulls up people you need, keeps in touch
  • App for youth with ideas to share: feel supported, other young entrepreneurs
  • Dumpster full of cash

A New Skills Landscape

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Many employers and commentators acknowledge the need for baseline, non industry specific skills in all workers. This has been discussed here previously in the Collage Career1 post. Demand for skills like problem-solving, leadership, communication, organizational skills, and computer skills all point to the changing nature of work: highly networked, fast-changing, less stable, and more creative.
These high level skill sets are frequently being sought without attention to their basic building blocks. Leadership and creativity, for example, require time and space for reflection. Yet few companies that want leadership or problem-solving skills in their workers create structures for this time and space, and few educational programs teach individuals how to do so for themselves.

The model that follows provides one perspective on how we might think about the core building blocks needed to develop highly skilled workers. We need to relate deeply with self, with others, and with information.

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 4.00.38 PM

Self Management Skills

Self management refers to all aspects of how we relate to our own experience, including our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. An often under appreciated skill set in the working world, imagine the implications of being strong or weak in these areas:

  • Motivation and self discipline
  • Ability to focus and direct attention
  • Self knowledge, including awareness of strengths & weaknesses
  • Intersection of self perception & behavior (ex. confidence)
  • Working with emotions
  • Self care and personal health
  • Tolerance for change & uncertainty

Many of these skills greatly influence worker productivity and engagement. Weaknesses like flying off the handle when upset, volunteering for projects better suited to a colleague, or failing to motivate oneself to finish tasks can have radical effects on a workplace. Independent workers often have more freedom to develop these skills, but also more room to flounder if they haven’t mastered them.

While we don’t often think of these areas as “skills,” they are just that. Tools and frameworks for improving in these areas abound, from personality2 and strengths3 assessments to mindfulness practices that are proven to improve focus4 and reduce emotional reactivity.5 As these tools are becoming popular in workplaces, we need to guard against the tendency for a “one and done” mentality with the expectation of miracle results. Developing self management is a complex process. What works for one person may not be effective for the next. A big part of developing self management skills is allowing space for regular reflection and exploration.

Social Skills

Modern workplaces also require us to work with others in a meaningful way, making social skills like cultural literacy important. Without awareness of the cultural norms within different groups, collaboration and communication are often riddled with assumptions, misunderstandings, and distrust. Similarly, understanding social power structures within organizations makes a real difference in our ability to navigate our work environment and get things done.

Communication

Few will deny communication is a necessary skill in the workplace, yet “communication skills” are often oversimplified. Courses that teach professional communication skills often emphasize just one or two aspects while ignoring others. For example, learning to present ourselves clearly and confidently, including verbal and nonverbal cues, can be helpful. But if we ignore the importance of building authentic relationships or how to express emotions in a productive way, communication will remain shallow and ineffective. The best communicators combine knowledge of social dynamics with self management skills.

Similar to self management, social skills and communication are messy. While frameworks like Non-Violent Communication6 and Crucial Conversations7 give us tools to create more systematic and useful approaches, part of the skill we need to cultivate is the self management ability to tolerate a degree of uncertainty in our interactions with people.

Organization Skills

Modern work experiences require us to manage ever increasing amounts of information. Organization skills, which help us track and organize that information for maximum usefulness, are critical.

Much of this fact results from the technologically-driven, networked nature of contemporary work. As a result, the ability to use software, either on computers or phones, is also important.

Most white collar jobs require workers to manage the following types of information:

  • Tasks
  • Files
  • Contacts
  • Emails and other communications

Software abounds to manage this information. As software becomes more varied, it’s no longer enough even to have strong skills in a specific software suite. We need to be skilled at learning new systems.

And even more important than being skilled at learning the technical requirements of new systems, is being flexible enough to change behavior to mesh with those systems. Being organized requires behavioral shifts like batching tasks and doing certain things at certain times.

Even though technical skill requirements vary according to the work, the general ability to systematize and organize information is important for everyone. For example, if we call instead of email, we need to have a system to make sure we call people back. And regardless of job type, finding and applying for work requires keeping track of information.

Group Process

“Collaboration” is a skill often quoted by employers as important for their workforce. Collaboration is essentially another name for group process, which combines the ability to communicate with the ability to organize work so people can accomplish things together. I use the phrase “group process” to highlight the importance of specific structures and processes for working together. Collaboration is often referenced in an amorphous way, referencing the overall fact of working together as much as a defined set of skills. The field of group process, on the other hand, includes tools like decision-making models8 and facilitation methods.9 We can maximize the rewards of collaboration—smarter decisions, greater productivity, and more engaged workers—by using structures that are designed to support collaboration.

Time Management

Time management marries organization skills and self management skills because time can and should be managed in more than one way:

  1. As an objective resource with discrete bits of information about when we are doing certain things – ie. calendaring.
  2. As a subjective reality that we experience in a personal way moment to moment, and that carries with it personal realities like moods and energy levels.

While time management skills have long been important for all kinds of workers, it becomes more so as the workforce shifts toward greater complexity, flexibility, and autonomy. Contingent workers often make their own choices about when to work on what, while many employers are waking up to the need for options like flex time for traditional employees.

Providing workers of all kinds with more flexibility in their schedules provides the opportunity for them to care for themselves better and feel a sense of autonomy, leading to greater worker satisfaction and productivity. Doing this effectively requires self management: knowing enough about personal energy cycles to establish an optimal sleep schedule, to schedule high-focus work at a time of day when we feel most focused, and to reserve time at the right moments to refresh and re-focus when we feel drained.

Greater flexibility can be fundamentally helpful to both workers and companies, to the extent that workers learn how to understand their needs (self management skills) structure work around them (organization skills), and set expectations with other workers accordingly (communications skills).

Relationship Management: Network

The degree to which we succeed as workers is most often a result of our network. We know the adage that “it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know,” but more to the point, it’s what those people are willing to say about us. In a world where jobs are less stable and individuals are more likely to be contingent or self-employed at some point, no one can afford to ignore their ability to obtain work. That ability often boils down to whether people are willing to recommend us. Referrals become even more important as employers and clients realize that industry-specific experience can be less important than attitude and the types of overarching skills identified in this post.

Many of the most highly desired workers have all the skills described in this post. Organization skills form the backbone of our ability to get the right things done and be productive. Knowing ourselves, managing our energy, and communicating fluidly are mandatory in a highly connected, complex economy.

We don’t have to look at complex work to understand why these basic units are so important. Imagine a “people person” who makes a great impression at first, but whose lack of organization skills causes them to lose your phone number and forget to call you back. Or a highly organized person who can’t manage their emotions and is unpleasant to work with. Or a really insightful person who struggles to communicate and collaborate. Would you recommend any of these people to a close friend or colleague who is seeking a new worker? Certainly they wouldn’t be able to negotiate the best compensation or get the best contracts. At the end of the day, we are unable to build trusting professional relationships and expand our network of allies without skills in the Self, Others, and Information spheres.

Implications

While these skills are important for all workers, they are especially important for independent, project-based workers. Independents rely more deeply on their networks since they seek new work more often. Additionally, self-management, social, and organizational skills give us the adaptability to work effectively when we encounter new team members, technology platforms, and organizational structures at the start of a new project. In fact, working as an independent can be a form of trial by fire for developing these skills, making us more ready to tackle changes even within a traditional full-time job.

The changing world of work asks a lot of us. While it behooves us to know and play to our strengths, the model proposed here suggests that we all need core skills—self management, social, and organization skills—that are often described as being separate or mutually exclusive. This separation of strengths is often encouraged by current personality models. Most people have higher natural competence in one area, and may feel uncertain about their ability to become more socially fluent, computer savvy, or organized if that isn’t a current strength.

Developing and integrating skills in all these areas would radically change our experience of work for the better. There are frameworks, tools, and models for learning every one of them. And yet the percentage of time spent on teaching them, whether in schools or professional development circles, is limited. More troubling, access to this kind of development is generally a privilege for people who already have a leg up. These skills largely determine work success, which in turn increases the availability of time or money to invest in further development: a classic example of the “success to the successful” systems trap.10 In order for companies and workers to succeed in our dynamic economy, we need to incorporate the development of these core skills in educational and work experiences—for everyone.

Questions for further consideration:

  • 8.1 What should be the baseline minimum skill level in these areas, regardless of industry or role?
  • 8.2 How can we integrate learning in these core areas into companies and educational settings?

  1. http://gig.work/work-future-5-the-collage-career/ ↩︎
  2. https://www.discprofile.com/what-is-disc/overview/ ↩︎
  3. http://strengths.gallup.com/110440/About-StrengthsFinder-20.aspx ↩︎
  4. http://ideas.time.com/2013/03/27/can-mindfulness-help-you-focus/ ↩︎
  5. http://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2016/06/08/why-mindfulness-is-the-key-to-performing-at-your-peak/#515665774a89 ↩︎
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonviolent_Communication ↩︎
  7. https://www.vitalsmarts.com/products-solutions/crucial-conversations/ ↩︎
  8. http://www.communityatwork.com/images/Kaners_Decision_Rules_2010.pdf ↩︎
  9. http://www.journeyofcollaboration.com/blog/basic-course/ ↩︎
  10. http://donellameadows.org/archives/success-to-the-successful/ ↩︎

Work Future 8: Gig Work as Workforce Development

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Brookings Institute recently relaunched their Metro Monitor1 with the declaration that cities need to move beyond the focus on jobs when it comes to benchmarking success:

…the problem is that the relentless chase for jobs, absent broader goals to improve people’s economic well-being, can be costly. Local tax incentives to build a shopping center, for instance, can result in near-term job growth. But if that development occurs in a region where incomes aren’t growing, then that subsidy merely shifts consumer spending and associated jobs within the region, rather than creating net new (quality) jobs and lifting incomes.2

This narrow focus on jobs misses the point that jobs are actually means to other ends3 with the most important of those ends being consistent and sustaining income. This obsession with job-creation is built upon the assumption that a job equates to consistent and sustaining income. The reality is there are plenty of jobs that do not provide consistent or sustaining income. Many “jobs” today have more in common with project-based work than they do with traditional W2 employment even though they are frequently categorized as such.4

Far too few of our workforce development efforts focus on the generation of value for society as a whole.

Workforce Development Today

Workforce development efforts typically take two forms. Sector-based approaches (demand side) assess the current and future needs of specific industries and employers and attempt to provide workers to meet those needs. Place-based approaches (supply side) focus on training unemployed workers to improve their prospects in the labor market. There are models that integrate both approaches.

The sector-based approach is reactive in that workers are molded to the needs of employers today and those employers’ best guesses about tomorrow. This approach was very functional when an individual could spend years building up skills and then secure a position that provided consistent and sustainable income for years or even decades. But the fast pace of the 21st Century economy means the sector-based approach has become a boom and bust cycle. Timing has more to do with workforce development than we acknowledge. The current economic pace inherently favors those who are already on a leading edge. Having skills and connections begets the further development of new skills and new connections. The reality of this situation is that by the time most sector-based workforce development programs are defined and implemented, many of the opportunities have already passed.

The place-based workforce development approach is more worker-centric in that it begins from the current state of the worker rather than the needs of employers. Factors as varied as housing, language fluency, and soft skills are often incorporated into place-based programs. The essence of the place-based approach is to prepare workers for the labor market in general while addressing both employment and non-employment concerns.

The down side to the place-based approach is twofold. The first issue is many people who are most in need of income have a very long way to go before they become desirable employees. Very bluntly, if an individual is struggling with basic skills such as language and the use of email, the odds of that individual securing quality, long-term employment are slim. Knowing that 44%5 of college graduates are underemployed6 is a sobering reminder how competitive the job market is today.

The second failing of the place-based approach is the emphasis on job rather than work. Some people are unemployed not because they are unprepared to work, but because their life circumstances prevent them from being able to make a full- or even part-time commitment. We need to recognize that factors such as health conditions, family responsibilities, and transportation limitations often restrict employability. Our current concept of equating jobs and work severely limits how we value work and how we prepare people to provide for themselves.

The core elements of the sector-based and place-based approaches are incredibly useful. Employers most definitely need to be a part of the plan, and programs need to address the entire reality of the worker. This means we need to embrace squishy issues like health, housing, and family along with the challenge of income generation as part of a systematic approach to improving our economy. These are not separate issues to be addressed in silos by hospitals, governments, and businesses. It is because of this complex nature of the workforce development challenge that project-based work is an opportunity.

Workforce Development Tomorrow

The opportunity of project-based work for workforce development is that it allows for a more incremental approach. Instead of focusing on taking people from unemployment to $30,000 a year, we should instead focus on moving people up the income scale in smaller increments. Uber slices up taxi jobs into smaller increments. AirBnB slices up hotels into individual rooms. The mental shift required is to focus on income generation and network-building and skill-building as the end goals rather than getting people jobs.

More businesses could participate in workforce development programs if the emphasis on traditional employment was reduced and the programs invited projects-based work. This model would be mutually beneficial to small businesses and project-based businesses in particular. Small business face growth challenges because each new employee massively impacts the bottom line. Going from two to three employees is a 50% increase in labor costs. This approach to business growth is often undertaken on a bet that an increase in future revenue will cover the additional employment costs. By focusing on full-time employment, workforce development programs effectively dismiss many small businesses as partners because they aren’t in a position to risk the overhead of a new employee.

The reality is small businesses are already using the project-based model informally. Our research has found that skilled trades businesses will bring on a new worker on a cash basis to avoid the employment commitment while vetting the worker’s performance. If the worker is a good fit, that person is made an employee. If not, the worker is paid for the time and moves on. This very useful process is technically illegal under the current IRS classification system of employees and contractors7. It is easy to imagine how workforce development programs could better partner with businesses if this process were legalized and elegantly regulated.

On the worker side of the equation we see a similar opportunity for project-based workforce development that is currently unrecognized and in a legal gray area. Many people entering workforce development programs already make some money. The vast majority of this income is unreported and a portion of it is due to illegal activities. Informality and illegality aside, the core point is if people are participating in the market in any fashion they are practicing entrepreneurship through project-based work. Furthermore, this is a much more practical (if often inefficient) form of entrepreneurship than the institutionalized classes, accelerators, and bootcamps that organizations are scrambling to activate. These workers already have income potential and marketable skills. Yet this income potential and these skills are often overlooked or set aside by existing workforce development programs.

The other opportunity of project-based workforce development is that by changing the unit of work to something more flexible and incremental, we can better acknowledge and support the full breadth of roles and responsibilities people have. Project-based work allows for income generation to be better integrated with non-work concerns such as caretaking responsibilities, chronic health conditions, and transportation limitations.

Start where people are.

A paradox of the current job obsession is that prior to entering workforce development programs, many underemployed and unemployed workers are forced to be practitioners of project-based work to get by. When these workers enter workforce development programs, their project-based work potential is not recognized as a viable means to stable income because it doesn’t look like a “job” or can’t immediately be a “job.” Ironically, research is currently showing that the vast majority of new work opportunities are exactly in the area underemployed and unemployed workers have already been working: project-based work.8

As a society, we are beginning to quantify the high social and economic costs of prioritizing economic concerns over social concerns. It is being recognized that we cannot address the economic without the social. A project-based work approach is one way to begin to integrate approaches that have been separate for too long.

Questions for further consideration:

  • What are the first steps workforce development programs need to take to incorporate project-based work into their approach?
  • How can more businesses be brought into workforce development efforts through project-based work?
  • What parameters need to be set to prevent the abuse of project-based workforce development programs?
  1. http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports2/2016/01/metro-monitor#V0G10420 ↩︎
  2. http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/the-avenue/posts/2016/02/01-moving-beyond-job-growth-liu ↩︎
  3. http://gig.work/work-future-2-what-is-work/ ↩︎
  4. This is core argument put forth by the Gig Work Project. ↩︎
  5. https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/media/research/currentissues/ci20-1.pdf ↩︎
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underemployment ↩︎
  7. https://www.irs.gov/Businesses/Small-Businesses-&-Self-Employed/Independent-Contractor-Self-Employed-or-Employee ↩︎
  8. https://krueger.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/akrueger/files/katzkruegercwsmarch2920165.pdf ↩︎