The Ascent of the ‘High-End’ Gig Worker
Workspan Daily
March 22, 2022
Key Takeaways

  • A new type of gig worker? The number of overall gig workers has remained steady during the pandemic, but the number of skilled gig workers is on the rise. 
  • Expanding the employment tent. Recent research finds more than 40% of organizations saying that how they source talent is likely to change in the next few years to include more contract and gig workers. 
  • A continuing trend. Experts say factors such as supply chain issues and inflationary pressure will only amplify the uptick in more highly skilled gig workers going forward. 

On the whole, it’s been an uneven experience for gig workers throughout the pandemic. 

Some gig workers — child-care providers or drivers for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, for instance — perform services that require them to come in close contact with others in person. Independent contractors like these saw their workload instantly evaporate when the world essentially shut down in the early months of 2020.

One analysis, for example, found 19% of gig drivers collecting unemployment benefits in July 2020. The same report saw the number of other types of gig workers collecting unemployment cresting between 13% and 15% at the peak of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, some freelancers thrived. San Francisco-based grocery delivery company Instacart hired hundreds of thousands of new gig workers in early-to-mid 2020 to help meet the growing demand for grocery delivery services. 

The coronavirus has certainly changed how consumers engage with businesses. The pandemic has also changed how and where employees work, of course. More jobs are now being done remotely, which means that more jobs can now be done by gig workers who can work anywhere, anytime. 

We’ll see if these developments translate to an increase in gig workers once the pandemic recedes. So far, the number of American workers classified as freelancers — including all types of gig workers — hasn’t drastically changed. In fact, a December 2021 survey conducted by freelance platform Upwork found the percentage of U.S. workers considered freelancers remained constant — 36% — between 2020 and 2021. 

That same Upwork survey, however, sees a shift in the type of freelance work being done, with freelancing growing among the most educated and decreasing among the least educated. 

“The higher skilled nature of freelancing is clear,” according to Upwork, which finds 51% of post-graduate workers doing freelancing, a 6% increase since 2020. In addition, the share of freelancers with high school diplomas or less dipped from 37% in 2020 to 31% in 2021. 

Skilled remote freelancing continued to climb in 2021 as well — albeit slightly, according to Upwork’s poll, which found 53% of all freelancers providing skilled services such as computer programming, marketing, IT and business consulting. That figure represents a 3% increase from 2020. In addition, 51% of workers with post-graduate degrees were freelancers in 2021, up 6% from the previous year. 

A recent Wall Street Journal piece notes the rising number of freelancers providing services in high demand such as computer programming, writing, business consulting, marketing and information technology. 

“High-end gig work in consulting, marketing, writing and project management has gained more traction during the pandemic, independent consultants and recruiters for such project-based work say,” WSJ’s Kathryn Dill wrote. 

“Once viewed as an off-ramp for executives drifting toward retirement or a life-raft for those struggling to re-enter the workforce after a break, independent consulting has emerged as a viable, and even attractive, option in today’s hot job market,” according to WSJ.

While professional gig workers reap the benefits of having flexible hours and control over the type and amount of work they perform, for example, employers “can tap a significantly broader talent pool to work remotely as they struggle to hire all the full-time staff they need,” wrote Dill.

Indeed, more organizations figure to expand the employment tent to include more independent freelancers in the days ahead.  

Consider Willis Towers Watson’s Global Reimagining Work & Rewards Survey, which found more than 40% of 1,650 organizations saying they expect how they source talent to change in the next three years to include more contract and gig workers. 

The uptick in more highly skilled gig workers “will only get amplified with supply chain and other acute global challenges, and inflationary pressure,” said Tracey Malcolm, global future of work and risk leader at Willis Towers Watson.

“Organizations that are clear about the work that needs to get done, its value to them, and the best source to deliver that work have the winning equation,” Malcolm said. “They’ll be clear about the work and secure the best source for that work at a point in time for the most impact.”

She urges organizations to carefully consider how this approach to talent acquisition could prove to be a competitive advantage. 

A company that needs digital marketing expertise to launch a product, for example, could screen, interview and hire a full-time employee, “even though this product campaign is really only targeted for their second quarter,” said Malcolm. 

Or the organization can create a digital marketing assignment and select a highly-rated, experienced freelancer for a term of, say, three months, she said. 

“Both options deliver, but one has a total labor cost associated with full-time rewards, while the other [only has] hourly work and the work assignment.”

Those who tested the waters as gig workers during the pandemic “were successful because of relationships,” said Kathleen Duffy, president and CEO of the Duffy Group, a Phoenix-based executive recruitment firm. “People trusted them with projects.” 

This trend figures to continue, she said, “but only for those who can balance business development with client development and working on their own. The true entrepreneurs will succeed, while others will return to corporate America.” 

Seeking out gig workers to fill skilled positions, even in the short-term, enables employers to get talented workers while taking a closer look at their operations, leaders and internal environment, Duffy said. As an example, she referenced a DEI consultant in her professional network who recently left a senior-level position at a Fortune 50 company because of the organization’s leader. 

“He’s consulting while looking for his next opportunity, because he’s not sure about balancing business development and project work,” Duffy said, noting that leveraging talent from the gig economy offers the opportunity to place skilled freelancers in roles all the way up to interim CEO. 

“This ‘try-it-before-you-buy-it’ concept would undoubtedly benefit employers and candidates alike.” 

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