Who's in charge? Career planning for professional services in the gig economy

Burke Turner
You say freelance, I say gig, they say contingent worker. Let’s call the whole thing.. work. Or rather; work in the age of the gig economy. The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices reports growth of total employment rallying with support from the self-employed part time and self-employed full time sectors. Full-time employees as a proportion of total employment hovering around 63%. Which is roughly 2% below the figure in 2008.

Enter stage left - the gig economy.

Those dots are easy to join; economic pressure post GFC driving the shift to both a more flexible (read cost effective) workforce. It’s the corporate innovation in response, remembering that necessity is the mother of all invention. I remember a chance encounter at dinner with a former employee of a reputable and long established British airline. He was waxing lyrical about the days when staff would be retrained endlessly rather than be retrenched, and how he has trouble spending his pension. I nearly spat out my soup. What world is this?! Just this morning I delivered another project that coordinated freelancers based in Canada, Indonesia, and London; a seemingly inexhaustible supply of talent all vying for the next gig, delivered on time, to a high standard, seamlessly managed online, and all while being highly cost effective. And of course, if this cast of characters don’t meet expectations, the cost to move onto the next name on the platform equates to a few minutes and a handful of clicks. The market for talent we have access to today is unprecedented. While the nature of the challenges with the gig economy for the Deliveroo cyclist, the Uber driver (even more visible of late), and the seemingly endless supply of designers and offshore software developers appears in plain sight, why don’t we consider the journey for the professional services consultant to be equally as perilous? What degree of success in winning the next gig for the so called ‘freelance white collar workforce’ is tied to their interpersonal and ‘soft’ skills? (Some would feel these are better labelled as competencies.) To what degree does their success depend on ‘who you know’ rather than ‘what you know’? And how sustainable is this balancing act? Ask a lawyer in a large firm how far in advance their development and learning pathway extends (which I did) and they may well say 1-2 years. They have their goals set for the next tier of promotion, and have a stable of more senior role models to serve as mentors and exemplars of the skills required to ‘make it’. Ask a legal consultant who has been ‘gigging’ for several years how far in advance their development and learning pathway extends (which I did) and they may well say 1-2 weeks. They are busy delivering the best work they can in the moment; their focus on learning will be sharpened by the difficult questions asked by the current client, or when the contract is approaching the end of term and it’s time to find a new buyer. The gig economy by definition includes professional and developmental institutional voids; where is the HR team, the development officer, the L&D budget for the freelancer? Who is stewarding their path to the skills and competencies that matter most? And given the incredibly rapid pace of change due to technology (last week's Cloud becomes yesterday’s IoT which is today’s Blockchain and tomorrow’s ICO..) freelancers need reputable line of sight to the knowledge and skills they will need for their next gig. Shaping a career amongst a growing platform economy by relying on the power of networks has an uncomfortable shelf life; staying current and relevant in skillsets is more critical than ever to retaining and increasing personal value in market. It’s high time the freelance white collar knowledge wor gigging professional moved from a survivalist personal development strategy to one that is front-footed and proactive. Doctors are the worst patients after all, or so it is said.

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