How to build your career in the gig economy

Sut I Wong, Christian Fieseler, Dominique Kost

A sustainable freelancing career – difficult but not impossible.

Eleven percent of workers in the EU participate in the gig economy. In the U.S. as many as 1 in 4 rely on freelancing for all or part of their income.

Unlike traditional employees, gig workers do not receive HR support including promotions, skills training, career development or job security.

Research shows that many find themselves caught between two extremes: empowerment and marginalization.

Empowerment because they have the freedom to pick their own tasks and choose when, where, and how to complete them.

Marginalization because many gig platforms make human workers invisible and foster transient, task-based, and short-lived relationships that disconnect workers from each other and the outcomes of their work.

A new study of 334 freelancers shows how you can build a sustainable career in the gig economy.

Take charge of your work

As a gig worker you have the freedom to take a more creative approach to crafting your own work. For example, you can try different kinds of tasks, change the number of tasks you perform, or learn new skills to qualify for better paying jobs.

The key is adapting your work to better align it with your values, goals, and likes. If you find your work meaningful and engaging, you are likely to both feel better and perform better.

A 59-year old female participant in the study illustrates this: “I actively look for work that I enjoy doing and look for work that fits well with my talents. I have become more efficient in finding work and am always looking for new work to qualify for.”

The caveat is that career development requires more active commitment from gig workers than it does from conventional workers.

Collaborate with others

To support their career development, some digital workers collaborate collectively through online communities. Exchanging experiences and sharing information on how to find well paid tasks and avoid shady requesters.

For example, creative freelance designers have created online communities to support workers facing unclear career trajectories and unpredictable pay.

By using individual and collective strategies like these, you can build resilience to cope with the uncertainty and flexibility of gig work, while benefiting from the freedom it provides.

Platforms should do more

The platforms of the gig economy should support their users by investing in building supportive communities.

Part of the challenge is enabling knowledge sharing among workers who are highly competitive.

In general, people in jobs with lower skill requirements place greater value on financial factors than on career development because low-level skills can be easily replaced.

To deal with this, platforms organizations should develop knowledge sharing and supportive cultures, such as prosocial and mastery climates.

Upskilling and task variation are also important for platforms if they want to motivate gig workers for long-term career development.

Research shows that the more gig workers engage with each other in seeking support and collaborations, the more likely they will stay committed to developing their careers as gig workers.

This also benefits employers with an increase in the quality of work and continued access to qualified workers.

Source: Wong, S.I., Kost, D. and Fieseler, C. (2021), From crafting what you do to building resilience for career commitment in the gig economy. Hum Resour Manag J.

Published 4. October 2021

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