Enticed by the freedom of working when, where and how they want, today’s employees increasingly are taking on short-term work, longer-term contract jobs or side “gigs” instead of permanent positions, with the advantages of flexibility, variety and the ability to follow their passions.
Attractive among millennials and retirees who are less reliant on employer-paid benefits, the “gig economy” continues to rise, driven by digital technology among other factors. These work arrangements are giving employers the ability to attract high-quality talent, and form nimble, reconfigurable teams and resources that can flex based on their immediate needs.
According to Kelly Services, a global leader in providing workforce solutions, 33 percent (one in three workers) of the entire U.S. workforce is comprised of gig workers or free agents. Professionals engaged in outsourcing engagements as consultants or providers are often part of this gig workforce.
PULSE spoke with Carl Camden, former president and chief executive officer of Kelly Services, about what’s driving the gig economy, how it affects outsourcing, the benefits and barriers for employees, the impact of robotics and immigration reform, and other topics. Soon after our interview, Camden announced his departure from Kelly as of May 10 to pursue opportunities in public service.
Camden is a recognized thought leader in talent management and how companies can adapt to succeed in the changing economic landscape. He is well-known for being a passionate advocate for the free agent workforce.
Recently, under his leadership, Kelly gathered policymakers, business leaders and economists for a forum focused on advancing the social contract for gig economy workers, seeking to remove barriers and provide a safety net for these workers engaged in non-traditional work. Sponsored by The Conference Board, the Advancing the Social Contract for Gig Economy Workers forum held this February in Washington, D.C., opened the dialogue for change. For more, see gigeconomyvoice.com.
Is the gig style of work new?
This is the way people have worked for much of humankind. Having a large portion of society working in dedicated jobs has been a relatively new phenomenon. In the U.S. it didn’t become a majority work style until World War II. In the late 1940s, we became a nation of workers. In Charlie Chaplin’s movies, he was protesting what he viewed as the insanity of an assembly line. And in the 1960s and 1970s, there was “rage against the machine” and people saying this is not how we want to live. So the revolution and counter-revolution between these two styles of work have been going on for a long time.
What is driving the adoption of a gig orientation to work?
The speedy return to a gig economy is being driven by three big factors. First, job lifecycles are decreasing. The idea that someone can work in a job continuously for their whole career goes away for no other reason than today’s jobs are constantly evolving. Second, the cost of technology to replace labor continues to decrease rapidly and we’re happy to use apps to replace some of the tasks humans used to do. Third, the just-in-time philosophy moved over from manufacturing to the service industry. Having a workforce that can flex up and down as needed has become ideal. You combine all that and the ability for a job to last even a year becomes more and more difficult.
How does that affect workers?
As the number of college-educated and technically trained people around the world grows, there are more and more people who will become happier about that process and about the opportunities presented to them. The investments by countries in education and skills training have enabled the gig economy to be rapidly adopted around the world.
How large is the gig workforce?
There are 50 million gig workers in the U.S. today, making up 33 percent of the entire workforce.
How is the gig economy impacting outsourcing?
One example is call centers. Some of the most successful call centers that Kelly manages on behalf of customers are people working from home. These are flex call centers where you can flex the number of workers you need based on the volume. In one of the best models, people get paid a minimum wage for being available and then get paid a much higher wage when they are processing or handling calls. So even outsourcing is being outsourced to the gig economy. It’s a big cultural shift.
of entire U.S. workforce is comprised of gig workers or free agents.[/rara_column][rara_column span=”3″]
What demographics of workers are the gig economy most appealing to?
We talk about the gig economy being driven by the millennials but employees over the age of 60 are aggressively participating in the gig economy because they see it as a way to manage a nonjob and still stay productive. And, in the U.S. benefits matter. But they often matter less to people over the age of 60 and people in their pre-child-bearing years, which is why you see the gig economy heavily supported by the millennials and the Boomers.
What are the barriers to the gig economy?
In the U.S., we structurally have a unique set of barriers to the gig economy. Unlike most of the industrialized world, we strongly tie the benefit structure in the U.S. to jobs and we have a lot of infrastructures committed to trying to retain that. We have difficulty collecting taxes in the U.S. in a non-job environment. Other countries use value-added taxes or sales tax so every financial transaction comes with a tax. Healthcare also is a structural barrier. Company-sponsored 401K and other retirement plans don’t work quite as well and financial services like mortgages, credit cards and lines of credit are more difficult for gig economy workers to receive because their income is more uncertain in terms of predictable flow. Despite the fact that access to financial services, healthcare and retirement are limited and the government makes it difficult, over a third of the U.S. workforce is participating in the gig economy. I think that’s a great testament to the cultural shift that’s taking place.
What was the Advancing the Social Contract for Gig Economy Workers Forum in Washington, D.C. all about?
This day-long meeting was about asking: Can a coalition of us that aggregate and represent big portions of the gig economy stand up to drive for significant changes in the social benefits structure in this country to make it not discriminatory to the outsourcing and gig economy professionals. I was excited. I didn’t know if anyone would come and a whole lot of people came. When we put out the request to begin organizing the second conference, the responses were also very heartening. Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia gave a great speech and we had Republican U.S. Representatives Tim Walberg and Dave Trott of Michigan participate. It is an incredible rarity to have a bipartisan agreement but we did it. The support for the gig economy also is across generations and job classifications from experienced executives to entry level.
What countries are the leaders in adopting gig economy?
The U.K and parts of Asia are leaders. Malaysia and Singapore are fast adapters. Countries that are adopting this new orientation have a good technical backbone and good educational system, and a benefit structure that is completely separated from employment that is tied either to citizenship or participation in the economy. Europe is a good place for this.[/rara_column][/rara_column_wrap]
How do robotics and automation affect the gig?
McKinsey spoke at the February forum and said that automation is definitely going to speed up the disruption of traditional jobs and increase the need for gig workers. Work will persist and humans will be needed for work. But if it’s a task that will persist for a year or two or three years, it’s more than likely that it would be better done via automation because it’s a repetitive task that ultimately could be done less expensively that way. We are beginning to have customers now ask us to also include robotics in the work supply chain, which is how the various tasks get done. As the costs go down and AI (Artificial Intelligence) smartness increases that will continue. There will be a significant change in workforce planning because the workforce will include robotics. Today it sits a little too separate from the people doing the talent planning but I think you will see that all integrate over the next five years, especially in manufacturing.
What are the educational challenges we face in the U.S.?
The challenge that we have to give to education entities all the way through early childhood to postgraduate work is: How do we change education and training so it becomes a continuous activity rather than an episodic activity? How do we make it more like healthcare so you receive annual checkups or have apps or analytic programs from the supply chain managers that tell you what you next need to learn in order to stay employable, keep your deployment rate up, or increase your salary? In the checkup, we would be able to say you are falling dangerously out of capability in these zones because you don’t have this training or these certifications. Educational facilities are designed to have you check in and check out two, four or seven years later and be relatively done without all that many requiring continuing education or updating skills. That’s old job-centric versus new gig economy-centric.
What skills does management need to succeed in the gig economy?
The management team isn’t trained to deal with a mixed workforce due to work style preferences. We teach managers about diversity in every which way possible except diversity of work style. We talk about employee engagement but don’t measure talent engagement and the satisfaction independent workers have in their gigs. Are we training people on speed to team? How do you integrate managers in a rapid and effective fashion with your independent and traditional core employees? I haven’t seen that on any MBA curriculum. Employees and managers need to learn how to team people from different work cultures and have a continuous effort to keep skills and training up to date and of value. Kelly’s research shows that the soft skills of communicating, team building and participating well in groups are all critical.
Tell me about your own background and how you obtained three degrees (including a Ph.D.) by the age of 25?
I am passionate about education and was the first in my family to go to college. I was the beneficiary of good intervention by people who cared to take someone who didn’t have a path to college and make it possible. As an undergraduate, I earned degrees in speech and psychology, and minors in sociology, religion and Russian history in three years and I loved it. I became a college debater and was recruited from Southwest Baptist College to go to what is now Central Missouri University to be their debate coach. While there, I got master’s degrees in speech communication and clinical psychology. Then I was recruited to Ohio State University to coach the debate team there, where I got a Ph.D. in communication combined with psychology. My specialty was psycholinguists, which is the relationship between language and thought. At age 25, I became a tenured college professor at Cleveland State University and a department chair. I had a job guaranteed for life and then I left. I started a small company using psycholinguists to make better advertising with the person who is now my wife. We sold it after a short period to an ad agency and I became president of the agency. Then I was recruited by a bank and 22 years ago recruited to Kelly Services.
What is your best advice?
Take chances in your career. I think it is especially hard for people and those around them to encourage them to take the chance. Giving up tenure was a big deal. Moving into the business world where I never had a single business course in my life was scary. I think those who turn down an interesting opportunity because it didn’t fit the plan worry me. The plan can’t become more important than their happiness.
What books do you like to read?
I read a lot of science fiction. I probably read half of what is published in the U.S. every year. I find the science fiction writers are the best people at figuring out the possibilities in new technologies and new scientific breakthroughs. I also like history a lot and understanding social history or concept history.
Who are your role models?
There a lot of individuals who went out of their way to help me to succeed, even though there wasn’t going to be much of a payback for them. I try to encourage employees to be socially active. I expect my senior officers to be involved in at least one charity and serve on a board and get involved. I admire people who completely changed the way the world views itself like Freud, Einstein and Darwin.
What are your favorite foods?
I’m fortunate to have a wife who is a gourmet chef who matches up with my hobby of being a sommelier. I travel a whole lot of the world and I am always interested in heritage or peasant food. In the U.S., we are fortunate to have food as entertainment but in big parts of the world, food isn’t entertainment, its survival. What they manage to do with ingredients, I find to be interesting, tasty and well worth the experience.