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.

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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.


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.


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 ↩︎

Work Future 7: Anchor Institutions Need to Lead

Anchor institutions are important for economic or community development1. For those not acquainted with the term, anchor institutions are organizations that are stable in their current position and are expected to successfully carry out their missions over long periods of time. Examples of anchor institutions are hospitals, universities, and large corporations. These organizations tend to be less affected by local conditions due to their scale. They tend to have the ability to experiment to a degree without threat to their bottom lines. Anchor institutions are often pillars of development strategies because of their relative predictability and ability to experiment. The premise is anchor organizations can implement desired changes that would potentially sink less stable and smaller organizations. This leadership role needs to be embraced by anchor organizations when it comes to laying the groundwork for how work is done in the future.

Many anchor organizations have already implemented certain aspects of the gig economy. To meet the scheduling demands of running a 24/7 operation, hospitals routinely offer positions of 20/hr/wk, 24/hr/wk, 28/hr/wk, 32/hr/wk, 36/hr/wk, and 40/hr/wk along with pool and on-call positions. According to the American Association of University professors, over 50% of faculty are contingent (meaning part-time or non-tenured).2 Similarly, industry-funded research has found that 32% of workers at companies are contingent or contract-based.3

It is again important to note that the shift in the nature of work spans the spectrum from traditional employees to Uber drivers to workers provided by staffing agency. This isn’t something happening to the proverbial “them.” It is something that is happening to all of us.

Unfortunately, the Industrial Age hangover of “efficiency gains” is currently driving a race to the bottom through contingent work. Hospital nurses are chronically understaffed,4 adjunct professors on average earn $20,000 to $25,000 a year5, and corporations routinely use third-party agencies to effectively employ workers without incurring the fixed costs of actual employment. For every dollar paid in wages, employers can save 29 to 39 cents on taxes and benefit costs by using non-employee workers.6 This focus on 20th Century efficiency by anchor institutions largely overlooks the true costs of talent churn and lost productivity. (It turns out efficiency gains that are not built around human considerations aren’t all that efficient.) Due to the size and influence of anchor organizations, their approach effectively determines the norms by which all others must abide. This is especially pressing because productivity gains in the last decade are only half of what they were the previous decade7. Productivity gains are a core component to supporting a healthy middle class.

Open work up to the world.

The single biggest thing anchor institutions can do to improve both their own situations and the general state of the economy is to open their work up to the world. Organizations must realize that the talent outside their doors is as important of an asset as the talent inside. The full-time mold of 40 hours a week needs to be set aside. Anchors should make a portion of their work and vendor contracts public. Moreover, a certain percentage of them to be issued to local vendors. This will help invigorate the local economy. (We already know high quality talent is attracted to vibrant locations.) These actions will also provide work to the talent ecosystem outside the anchor and thereby improve the talent pool they have available to draw from.

Anchors can also get creative about time commitment. If algorithms can schedule retail workers based on real-time demand8, anchor organizations should be able coordinate someone who wants to work 15 hours a week with someone who wants 25 hours a week with someone who wants to work 45 hours a week. By doing so, suddenly those who don’t have the desire or ability to work 40 hours a week become part of the talent pool. Anchors also need to learn how to give workers more extended time off. This could mean jumping on the 4-day work week train9. This could also mean spreading payments for nine months of work over a 12 month period so worker can take three months a year to refresh, reflect, and grow. Talent would be enabled to take a significant amount of time off while knowing there is a job to return to.

Anchors need to get serious about time commitment as well. This means creating a work environment that doesn’t let a commitment of 40 hours of week creep up to 50, 60, and beyond. Organizations need to support and respect the time commitment of their talent. Taking time to live a full and whole life needs to be promoted and celebrated by anchors because fulfilled workers will increase productivity.

Just as anchors need to adjust their ways, so do workers. Workers need to realize that $60,000/yr with more control of their time can be equal to or greater than $100,000/yr for 50 hours of work a week. This frequently means lifestyle adjustments such as smaller home, home cooking, and less stuff!

  • 7.1 What tools do anchor institutions need to help them open their work to the world? These tools need to address considerations such as intellectual property, contracting, and project management with a more dynamic talent pool.
  • 7.2 What adjustments does talent need to apply to meet anchor institutions in the middle and create a vibrant talent pool outside the organizations themselves? How does talent need to adjust expectations?
  1. https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=anchor+institutions+and+development ↩︎
  2. http://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts ↩︎
  3. http://www.skilledup.com/insights/longer-just-temp-rise-contingent-worker ↩︎
  4. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/widespread-understaffing-of-nurses-increases-risk-to-patients/ ↩︎
  5. http://www.npr.org/2013/09/22/224946206/adjunct-professor-dies-destitute-then-sparks-debate ↩︎
  6. http://www.irle.ucla.edu/publications/documents/IndependentContractorCost20151209.pdf ↩︎
  7. http://www.nber.org/papers/w21974 ↩︎
  8. http://www.wsj.com/articles/retailers-under-fire-for-work-schedules-1428890401 ↩︎
  9. http://www.fastcompany.com/3047329/the-future-of-work/how-companies-actually-make-four-day-workweeks-feasible ↩︎

Work Future 6: The Gig as Startup

Reading Time: 4 minutes

There are few concepts that embody the ethos and optimism of Silicon Valley as well as the accelerator.

Accelerators are programs that typically last 90 days and seek to scale startups quickly. They do this by infusing capital (usually in exchange for equity), providing access to connected mentors and their networks, and giving technical assistance both to develop the product and the business. Due to the intensity of programming, accelerators generally demand total devotion from their participants. This all-in commitment is built on the startup trope that says the truest entrepreneurs prioritize their business over all else. Accelerators don’t claim to be the end-all and be-all for starting new companies, but anyone with commitments that cannot be put on hold (e.g. spouses, children, mortgages, student loans) is ill-suited to participate in them due to this all-in culture. The average age of entrepreneurs funded by Y Combinator, the original and most successful accelerator, is 26 years old1. This is a demographic that is delaying marriage, children and mortgages (students loans are another thing). Yet research from the Kauffmann Foundation2, the preeminent foundation for entrepreneurship, notes that the average and median ages for successful business founders are both 40 years-old, and a majority are married with children.3

So why does this matter? And how does this relate to the gig economy?

This matters because as economic development policy and practice seek to emulate the successes of Silicon Valley, it is important to understand the context within which those successes function. The tendency is to shine the spotlight on the Y Combinators of the world and ask how we can make that happen here (wherever “here” happens to be). But in reality, the accelerator model works well for two very specific segments of the population: youth with few responsibilities and those with the means to support their commitments while they work on a business.

For most everyone else, the better business startup model is the gig.

By some estimates, over 50 million Americans do some type of side work while employed, be it part- or full-time. These are the people with spouses, children and mortgages—commitments than cannot and should not be put on hold—who are interested in expanding their economic potential. Gig work allows individuals to test the waters of a business idea or passion while simultaneously allowing them to keep up other commitments. If 1% of the people who currently work on the side have interest in starting a business (we know the number is higher than 1%), that would be 500,000 potential businesses. If only 10% of those potential businesses were successful, that would still be 50,000 new businesses.

The flip side of this overlooked potential for new businesses is the reality that 90% of startups fail4. The fact of the matter is the all-in approach of Silicon Valley mythology means betting the farm, and a very small percentage of the population is willing and able to do that.

Unfortunately, this prioritization of the all-in entrepreneur isn’t limited to contemporary tech startup culture. It is the main archetype applied in existing economic development efforts across the country. It is a significant oversight that more business startup and support efforts do not embrace gig work as a more patient and inclusive path to economic development.

This is not to say there aren’t already steps being taken in this direction. A specific example that supports and encourages gig work is Wisconsin’s Pickle and Cookie Bill5 that is currently being considered by the state legislature. This bill would allow gig workers to produce and sell up to $7,500 in canned or baked goods without having to go through the regular licensing requirements. In essence, the bill invites individuals interested in expanding their economic potential to test the waters of entrepreneurship without the high stakes of the all-in route. Variations of the Cookie and Pickle Bill have been passed in Wisconsin and other states establishing precedence for this type of thinking. Economic policies and practices need to evolve to support the gig economy.

I would like to note that accelerators should not be simply thrown to the side as business summer camps for the select few. They can work well for investor-driven business development. But what can immediately be taken from accelerators and applied more broadly to gig workers and beyond are some of their practices. The ideas of the lean startup, iterative design, customer validation, cloud technology and coworking apply to all businesses (both non- and for-profit), not just tech companies in accelerator programs. These “how” practices of tech startup culture are excellent tactical innovations.

The gig economy is currently touted as the result of Silicon Valley innovation, but the gig economy is much broader and more established than the current tech boom (and the one before that…and…). There is real opportunity for economic development approaches to embrace and encourage gig work.

Questions for further consideration:

  • 6.1 What could communities do to further activate the economic potential of all their citizens who are working on the side of employment?
  • 6.2 How could existing business development and support services be adapted to the gig work approach?

  1. http://business.time.com/2013/03/14/ask-the-expert-the-best-age-for-a-start-up-founder/ ↩︎
  2. http://www.kauffman.org/ ↩︎
  3. http://www.kauffman.org/~/media/kauffman_org/research%20reports%20and%20covers/2009/07/anatomy_of_entre_071309_final.pdf ↩︎
  4. http://www.forbes.com/sites/neilpatel/2015/01/16/90-of-startups-will-fail-heres-what-you-need-to-know-about-the-10/#679fb19855e1 ↩︎
  5. https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2015/related/proposals/sb330 ↩︎

Work Future 5: The Collage Career

Reading Time: 3 minutes

  • col·lage /kəˈläZH/ noun, a piece of art made by sticking various different materials such as photographs and pieces of paper or fabric onto a backing.1
  • ca·reer /kəˈrir/ noun, an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.2

The collage career posits that the “how” of work is at least as important as the “what”. Three defining characteristics of the collage career are:

  1. A strong baseline skill set
  2. Diversification of revenue streams
  3. An increasing integration of work and life

Baseline Skills

According to Bloomberg, the most desired yet hardest to find skills for employers seeking MBA graduates are strategic thinking, problem-solving, leadership skills, and communication skills.3 On the lower end of the skills spectrum, there is much demand for workers with skills such as writing, basic math, basic computer skills (typing, Microsoft Work and Excel), and organizational skills.4 None of these skills are industry-specific. All of these skills are frequently used on an daily or even hourly basis.

Gone are the days where simply becoming an expert is enough to guarantee economic stability. Businesses solve for ever-increasing productivity, and it turns out that significantly more time is filled with navigating colleagues, writing emails, and solving problems, than are filled with creating algorithms, engineering electric cars, or designing products.

A strong baseline skill set is anchored by the soft skills of communication, problem-solving, organization, collaboration, and cultural literacy. These soft skills must be augmented with basic technological competency. Today’s worker should be familiar with the use of phones, tablet and computers; with Windows, Android, OS and iOS; with Google search; and with common software like Microsoft Word and Excel, Google Docs, and WordPress. The baseline set of soft skills + basic technological competency applies to nearly every work situation today. This is also the core skill set needed to stay relevant over time through continual learning and development. Workers of all stripes need to be sharpening existing skills for today while developing new skills for tomorrow.


By investing in the development of skills that can be applied in multiple sectors, workers diversify economic opportunity while minimizing economic fragility.

This diversification is partially driven by the realities of employment itself. Workforce participation is dropping while job tenure is increasing.5 Those with jobs are holding on to them longer. And many without jobs are giving up all together.


Reduced workforce participation and longer tenure mean people are changing jobs less. This is worrying because changing jobs (increasing diversity) is one of the best ways to boost productivity and wages6. It also helps develop skills and grow personal networks, both of which are keys to economic success in the 21st Century.

Employment is not going away, but it is no longer the guarantee of stability or viability it once was. A significant portion of gig economy workers are also currently employed. Of an estimated 12.4 million people who work part-time as independents, 71% have either full- or part-time jobs.7 Instead of changing jobs, these workers are adding to what they already have-collaging, if you will. Diversification is a strategy for both economic survival and success.

Work-Life Integration

A 2014 White House report that compared Millennials to Gen Xers and Baby Boomers found that Millennials prioritize life goals more than the previous generations…

Generational Life Goals8

…while having equal or lesser expectations from their job.

Very Important Job Characteristics Among High School Seniors9

And according to the MBO Partners’ State of Independence report, “…the top four reasons individuals [across all generations] cited most frequently as factors for working independently were: the ability to control my own schedule (61%), more flexibility (58%), like being my own boss (54%) and the ability to do what I love (48%).”10 More workers are building their own work practices to suit their lifestyle needs. And life regularly encroaches into our work worlds in many forms, including spouse 11, age12, and gender13. The division between work and life is an artificial and misleading relic from the Industrial Age. There are numerous reasons approximately 40% of workers are already contingent 14, but one of the biggest is many contingent workers want their work to be aligned with their lifestyles.

The need to be professionally agile, the need to minimize economic fragility, and the desire for an integrated life are why the collage career is emerging.

Questions for further consideration:

  • 5.1 What is the best way to develop baseline skills?
  • 5.2 How can the development of baseline skills be better incorporated into educational experiences?
  • 5.3 What are the social implications of shifting from “What do you?” to “How do you do what you?”?

  1. https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&es_th=1&ie=UTF-8#q=define%3A%20collage&es_th=1 ↩︎
  2. https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&es_th=1&ie=UTF-8#q=define%3A%20career&es_th=1 ↩︎
  3. http://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-job-skills-report/ ↩︎
  4. http://burning-glass.com/wp-content/uploads/Human_Factor_Baseline_Skills_FINAL.pdf ↩︎
  5. Lower workforce participation itself could be driving the increase in tenure. ↩︎
  6. http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/want-a-raise-quit-your-job/ ↩︎
  7. https://www.mbopartners.com/uploads/files/state-of-independence-reports/MBO-SOI-REPORT-FINAL-9-28-2015.pdf ↩︎
  8. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/millennials_report.pdf ↩︎
  9. Ibid. ↩︎
  10. https://www.mbopartners.com/uploads/files/state-of-independence-reports/MBO-SOI-REPORT-FINAL-9-28-2015.pdf ↩︎
  11. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/minds-business/how-your-better-half-may-impact-your-success-at-work.html ↩︎
  12. http://www.aarp.org/about-aarp/press-center/info-03-2015/older-workers-unemployment-survey.html ↩︎
  13. http://jag.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/10/29/0733464813508649.abstract ↩︎
  14. http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/669766.pdf ↩︎

Work Future 4: Attention Employers

Reading Time: 6 minutes

There is a lot of hype about the gig economy and prophesies that Me Inc. is everyone’s future. But regardless of hype and the issues surrounding employment itself1, employment isn’t going away anytime soon. The percentage of employees working for large employers (500 employees or more) has steadily increased since 2004, accounting for 51.6% of employees in 2012.2 3 What can employers learn from the trends of the gig economy to take healthy advantage of gig workers?

Four “lenses” that consistently surface in surveys of why and how contingent workers4 end up contingent are stability, sophistication, lifestyle and learning.

The importance of stability to workers is easy to understand. Having a predictable amount of money for a known duration of time allows for planning and reduces anxiety. Stability is likely the most dominant concern for gig economy workers. (The decreasing duration of job tenure suggests that full-time employees may also be feeling the same stress.)

Sophistication refers to the kind of work being undertaken—workers want to be challenged. Forward-looking employers need to find ways to offer sophisticated and engaging work if they want sophisticated and engaged workers. An advantage large businesses have is they can tackle very complex problems that require thousands of minds to solve—a team of three is not about to build an MRI machine in a garage. Whereas an advantage small businesses have is it is often easier for workers to contribute in more areas of the overall process. These are just two ways sophistication can be leveraged according to scale.

Lifestyle acknowledges that work life and private life are not two separate things to be balanced, but two parts of a whole that need to be integrated. Children, health, parents, education, vacation and passion-projects all affect productivity. Happy and healthy people cost less and make individuals, businesses, and societies more economically vibrant. The wild proliferation of employer ratings, “best places to work” lists and certifications for green, democratic workplaces, and corporate responsibility, while great for appearances, are ultimately driven by the competition for talent. Consideration of lifestyle is gaining more importance in the hunt for talent.

Learning recognizes that if skills are not kept sharp in our fast-changing world, they rapidly lose their market value. Today it is the norm to be looking for the next “thing” even when the current “thing” appears to be working just fine. Over-achievers are looking for work that is all about learning all the time, and the minute the learning stops, they get bored and wander off. Everyone else is realizing that the only way to stay relevant is to keep learning.

How can employers re-imagine compensation, time and benefits through the lenses of stability, sophistication, lifestyle and learning?


Deferred compensation, usually in the form of stock options that vest over time, is frequently used to retain high-value employees at larger organizations. Its more derogatory name of “golden handcuffs” suggests how this practice can result in decreased worker productivity and actually may not be in a company’s long-term best interest. But what can be negative leverage for an employee (“The only reason I am working here is for my stock options.”) can become an opportunity when modified for contingent workers.

Contingent workers face consistent income volatility, while small businesses generally cannot compete for high-priced talent with large businesses. Taking on an employee at $100,000 per year isn’t possible or desirable for many small businesses. This is especially so when the demand for that individual’s services isn’t constant. But a small business may be able to offer a high-talent contingent worker $100,000 over two years to do a major project in a matter of months. The advantage to the worker in this scenario is they become affordable to small companies and the potential client-base expands.

For businesses, deferred compensation can make talent more affordable and cashflow management less difficult (smaller payments over a longer period rather than a large payment immediately). Obviously, legal guarantees would need to be in place.

Some will argue that deferring compensation for workers is too risky because it is akin to gambling one’s pay on the future of the client. This is certainly true. But those making this argument don’t realize how much “gambling” is already going on in the gig economy.


One thing employers can do immediately is break out of the 9-to-5, 40 hours a week mold. That model was functional for three shifts at the factory, but it is out of touch with the realities of 21st Century lifestyle demands. This points directly to gig economy work, but even permanent employees should be given more flexibility in how many hours they work, when they work, and where they work. A retirement home in Sweden has found that reducing the workday to six hours increased efficiency and reduced turnover5—two things every employer wants. Or perhaps a worker is okay with working intensely (50-60 hours week), but they are given an annual month-long sabbatical to recharge. Because of the amplification of technology, a great hour of work from one person has the potential to generate incredible value for a company. Quality of hours is starting to trump quantity of hours.

Getting creative with how hours are allocated doesn’t just benefit the workers. It can add a dimension of flexibility to businesses as well. A full-time employee needs to be kept busy full-time. As competition becomes more global and technology more sophisticated, is it smart to build expectations of productivity around the rather arbitrary number of 40 hours a week? Why not ask workers to determine their ideal workload and help them make that happen in order to utilize, and only pay for, their best work? Employers need to design their business structures to support quality hours of productivity.

Contingent workers can make a company more agile and innovative, assuming there is a stable talent pool to tap when needed.


The lesson for employers here is help workers help themselves. Compensation and benefits are often wielded antagonistically as tools to coerce commitment (see: golden handcuffs). Benefits are also massive responsibilities and relatively illiquid costs for businesses. How can we reduce the antagonism, get businesses out of the business of providing healthcare and retirement, and empower workers?

One answer is portable benefits. An example of portable benefits in practice is the 401(k). The 401(k) goes where the worker goes. Another example is self-insurance. The biggest innovation of the Affordable Care Act was the step it took towards making benefits independent of specific employment situations, but we have the opportunity and responsibility to innovate more.

Thinking outside the box, Labor organizer David Rolf and investor Nick Hanauer have proposed the “shared security account”6 as one avenue towards benefit portability. The gist of the shared security account is proration (benefits allocated on an hourly, or more granular basis), portability (benefits not attached to, or the responsibility of, a single employer), and universality (elegance of policy to minimize loopholes and complexity). Imagine if a worker had a shared security account and a business simply paid compensation with a determined percentage going to that account. This allows the business to contribute to the stability of the worker (helping guarantee the availability of talent) while maintaining the worker’s independence.

Innovate or alternative benefits can be provided. In Milwaukee, WI, one general contractor who uses project-based workers realized he was not in a position to offer traditional benefits due to the nature of the work. So instead he picks up his workers at their homes, feeds them breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and then drops them off at home, every day. These two “benefits” of transportation and food are allocated on a daily basis, making it possible to offer alternative benefits where the traditional options are not available. The advantages for the business are the workers show up on time every day and are fed and ready to work.

Employers should also consider that contingent workers may actually prefer to provide benefits for themselves. Benefits that are not tied to an employer can have a stabilizing influence.

Regardless of the merits of these particular ideas, employers are an important partner in the evolution of the gig economy.

Questions for further consideration:

  • 4.1 How can employers be encouraged to foster behaviors that are mutually beneficial to businesses and workers?
  • 4.2 How can employers help stabilize contingent workers?

  1. http://gig.work/work-future-3-employment-is-broken/ ↩︎
  2. http://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/econ/g12-susb.pdf ↩︎
  3. It is worth noting this could be due to either a growing number of people being employed by large employers or due to fewer people being employed in smaller businesses. ↩︎
  4. Agency temps, on-call workers, contract company workers, independent contractors, self-employed workers, standard part-time workers. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-168R ↩︎
  5. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/17/efficiency-up-turnover-down-sweden-experiments-with-six-hour-working-day ↩︎
  6. http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/37/shared-security-shared-growth/ ↩︎

Work Future 3: Employment is broken.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Traditional employment was not designed for the hyper extremes of ability, access and resources within networked societies.

  • “…In 1990 GM, Ford, and Chrysler brought in $36 billion in revenue and hired over a million workers… The big three today — Apple, Facebook, and Google — bring in over a trillion dollars in revenue and only have about 137,000 workers…”1
  • India has 1,000,000 people a month entering the workforce.2 3

The conundrum is this: Productivity is going up, requiring less people, but the global population is growing, meaning more people. And productivity gains are by and large concentrated in a minority of highly talented workers. This is not the first Gilded Age, but this is the first Gilded Age where the 91% of us with a cell phone can bear witness to the gilding.4

Social stability in the United States (and many other places) is built around the idea of stable employment and the ability to move up in the world. Be born, go to school, get a job—only then is the middle class promise of financial stability supposed to kick in. In the U.S., healthcare and retirement are designed to be taken care of through employment. Even the path to obtaining homeownership financing begins with W-2s5.

But what happens when economic transition becomes the new normal? The percentage of people participating in the workforce has been trending downward since 2000.6 And youth (15 to 24 years-old) workforce participation in the United State peaks at 60%7, which means a significant percentage of youth don’t have the experience of employment at all. And even when employment is achieved, other issues emerge. In the United States, 30% of employees are engaged in their work, 52% are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged.8 The bad news is we are only 30% efficient using the tool of employment to activate human talent. The good news is there is a lot of room to improve productivity by increasing the engagement of workers. But even if we put engagement aside, having a job does not promise opportunity. Workers are not seeing a return on their investment even as unemployment drops, which in theory should tighten the job market and raise wages.

Does employment look promising in this chart?

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 6.30.57 PM9

How about this one?

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 6.35.06 PM10

In summary, a decreasing percentage of people are participating in the workforce, many youth have no experience with jobs at all, the majority with jobs are not engaged in their work and those who are employed are not seeing a bright future.11

The challenge before us is to create the systemic and institutional structures that better activate and stabilize workers. And the first step is to consider what economic participation that does not assume traditional employment is the primary path to financial stability looks like.

Questions for further consideration:

  • 3.1 What are the implications of increasing financial volatility for a growing segment of workers?
  • 3.2 What opportunities exist because of increasing financial volatility?
  • 3.3 What alternatives to stable employment already exist and what can we learn from them?

  1. http://www.businessinsider.com/technology-is-destroying-jobs-and-it-could-spur-a-global-crisis-2015-6 ↩︎
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_CDBJfIUBw ↩︎
  3. This is of concern for every nation as mass migration across great distances has been enabled by globalized communication and transportation systems. Most assume technology will move the work to the workers. Few consider the implications of technology enabling the movement of people to where wealth resides. ↩︎
  4. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/06/cell-phone-ownership-hits-91-of-adults/ ↩︎
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IRS_tax_forms#W-2 ↩︎
  6. http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS11300000 ↩︎
  7. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/youth.nr0.htm ↩︎
  8. http://www.gallup.com/services/178517/state-global-workplace.aspx ↩︎
  9. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/sunday-review/the-mystery-of-the-vanishing-pay-raise.html ↩︎
  10. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/12/opinion/global/jobs-productivity-and-the-great-decoupling.html ↩︎
  11. It is at this point the political obsession of job-creation needs to be questioned. ↩︎

Work Future 2: What is work?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Work is an institution. An institution is “a significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture1.” Institutions evolve. And the institutional evolution of work is what the Gig.Work project will consider.

Today the institution of work is largely conceptualized as employment. Companies are started and/or grow and workers are hired to do the work. Work is rarely thought of as something that can be reimagined. And only recently has the economic development conversation started to seriously consider the role of non-employment work in our economy. Examples of non-employment have always existed in the ranks of the self-employed, entrepreneurs and artists.

But to reimagine the institution of work, we need to first consider its functions.


  • makes a livelihood (money);
  • produces goods and services for exchange;
  • provides well-being, a sense of participation and health;
  • creates a sense of identity, of role.

Let’s consider how work fulfills these four functions.


The investment of time and effort in exchange for value is the core economic action of the individual. Individuals, whether employees, entrepreneurs or investors, hope for an outcome of their work that provides for their needs and wants. The livelihood function is how most of us internalize work. I work to generate the means to acquire the goods and services I want.

Goods and Services

Work is the most basic input in the production of goods and services (a.k.a. productivity). The opportunity to offer labor to the production process is the one thing that guarantees that people with nothing else to offer—no investment capital nor control of resources—will be able to participate in the market. The goods and services function is how most of us externalize work. That person does work that creates a good or service I need or want.

The combination of the livelihood function with the goods and services function is the essence of the market system. Time and energy are invested with the promise that one will be able to acquire what one needs to live. An important assumption here is that one’s productivity will be valued at a rate that allows one to live well.


Well-being is a role of work that has been greatly under appreciated, but the increasing discussion around the concept of work-life balance demonstrates its emerging importance2. While many are striving to improve work-life balance3, others are throwing the concept out completely4. Regardless, there is newfound energy for understanding how work affects well-being and health, and how well-being and health affect productivity. And beyond the pure economic discussion, the implications of how our work practices affect things as diverse as home life, child-rearing and the environment. The well-being function of work is an underutilized opportunity to improve a range of social systems such as strengthening the sense of community and advancing healthcare and educational outcomes.


The sense of identity that is associated with one’s efforts is immense. A majority of Americans for the past 15+ years have consistently said that their sense of identity is derived from their job5. And one of the few questions that is appropriate to ask when meeting a new person (in nearly every culture) is “What do you do?” or “What is your job?” The identity function of work is still largely overlooked by all parties: people doing the work, people creating the work, and people regulating the work.

In Closing

A practice I would like to introduce in this installment of Gig.Work are thought experiments6. The initial work on this project is exploratory and philosophical. This is intentional because impulsive solutioneering is a symptom of having access to infinite information in the Network Age. Gig.Work intends to open conversion and invite discussion. The smart paths forward are generally found through time and practice. So with that, I close with four questions for further consideration.

  • 2.1 How does your work meet the functions of livelihood, goods and services, well-being, and identity?
  • 2.2 What does work look like that equally values livelihood, goods and services, well-being, and identity?
  • 2.3 What functional alternatives to the current institution of work can we imagine and practice?
  • 2.4 If identity and well-being are functions of work, is work something only humans do? Can machines do work?

  1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/institution ↩︎
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/24/upshot/the-great-divide-in-workplace-benefits.html ↩︎
  3. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/work-life-balance/art-20048134 ↩︎
  4. http://fortune.com/2015/03/06/work-life-integration/ ↩︎
  5. http://www.gallup.com/poll/175400/workers-sense-identity-job.aspx ↩︎
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thought_experiment ↩︎

Work Future 1: An Introduction

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The beginning is a great place to start, and luckily we are at a beginning.

This particular beginning emerged in the 1960s as we started to connect computers and share packets of information among the resulting networks.1 And ever since, the Internet, along with its biosphere of accompanying software and hardware, have been inviting themselves deeper into our lives. What started as a novelty whiz-bang-wow is now considered a critical necessity. Just place a random group of technologically-habituated humans in a space without connected devices and wait—the withdrawal symptoms will not be far behind. And as with all beginnings, they invite questions as to where they lead.

In light of this Network Age, Gig.Work explores one question in particular: How is the institution of work changing?

In order to explore properly, we must have lenses to see. The two primary lenses used will be the gig economy and systems thinking.

The gig economy lens looks at the evolution of work itself. Today the basic unit of work is the job. Children are educated for jobs. Adults look for jobs. Employers control jobs. Politicians promise to create jobs. Governments regulate jobs. The Gig economy proposes the project as the basic unit of work. In the gig economy, a job is considered just one form of project that qualifies as work.

The systems thinking lens examines how the institution of work fits into the larger society. Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole.2 Basically, everything is a system itself and everything is a part of a system. All these systems are interconnected. A primary thread of the Gig.Work project is the idea that we need to fundamentally reconsider the role of work within our social systems.

Using these lenses of gig economy and systems thinking, the change in how we work is readily observable. We each can think of concrete examples of people (perhaps even ourselves) who work on gigs, have multiple streams of income, and/or hold the title of “consultant” or “contractor.” The Uber-ification of everything from laundry3 to flower delivery4 to executive talent5 is another example of how work is changing. And many of us can relate to feelings of frustration, tenuousness and instability that permeate the experience of work and how it integrates into our lives. Gone is the option of the 30-year job with a pension. How we work is quite obviously changing.

The societal implications of this systemic change in the institution of work are immense. The questions for further consideration come rushing in:

  • What does employment mean today?
  • What does having a “collage career” mean?
  • Why are people doing project-based work?
  • What does education look like for the gig economy?
  • What skills are most critical in the gig economy?
  • What systems need to be adapted and built to create a predictable marketplace for both businesses and workers?
  • What is the current discussion about the “gig-project-sharing-on-demand economy” getting right and what is it getting wrong?
  • What is the role of work in our society?

It is questions such as these Gig.Work will explore through editorials, research, workshops, interviews, and document reviews, all to be published here.

This is a critical exploration because like the transition from hunting and gathering culture to agrarian culture; and like the transition from agrarian culture to industrial culture; the transition from industrial culture to network culture will fundamentally rewrite the human experience of work.

Welcome. Let’s begin.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Internet ↩︎
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_thinking ↩︎
  3. http://www.getwashio.com/ ↩︎
  4. https://www.bloomthat.com/ ↩︎
  5. http://www.businesstalentgroup.com/ ↩︎