The Gig Economy is here. What are we going to do about it?

580 200 Nick Schultz and Wingham Rowan

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“Companies like Uber are building a new kind of labor market; public bodies will have to deal with ramifications of the precarious work they create.”

It’s a common assumption. But this fatalistic resignation should be challenged.

What if public bodies accepted that, with upwards of 30 percent of the workforce already in irregular employment, it was time to focus their leverage on initiating the healthiest possible labor markets for this new world? How could those markets be different from Silicon Valley’s vision for gig workers? Who would run them? What’s the process for launch?

A team at City of Long Beach is working through these issues. In conjunction with employers, colleges and unions, our Pacific Gateway Workforce Investment Network is leading the nation towards launch of locally run markets for all types of hourly labor. These markets can be built around stability, protections, progression, workforce quality and alignment with employer needs. We aim to launch a new market for the region in early 2019.

Our project draws on groundbreaking work in British government programs. The learning and marketplace technologies produced are to be open sourced. The Walmart Foundation funded their Americanization.

This program is replicable, Kauffman Foundation recently published our manual “Making a Market for Irregular Employment: A Guide for States, Counties and Cities.” And there’s interest: The Long Beach project recently won a U.S. Conference of Mayors’ CommunityWINS award for best economic/job development initiative in America.

We are looking forward to sharing our work at the 2018 California Economic Summit. To further provoke debate about gig work ahead of the event, it might help to recap some of our initial thinking.

Companies like Uber each connect buyers and sellers of flexi-labor for a specific task. They have filled a vacuum where there could be broad, empowering, neutral exchanges for the full range of this labor. If local economies are to ever get that infrastructure, the workforce system is a logical candidate to initiate it. We already provide an open and neutral market for the full spectrum of traditional employment. CalJobs is a distinctive choice sitting alongside for-profit job boards.

But, aside from a few small-scale initiatives, we’re sitting out the shift to fragmented employment. Some organizations train students to navigate gig-work sites. A few cities help feed work-seekers into Uber and its competitors. Other municipalities battle to tame excesses of these new labor exchanges.

Meanwhile, gig workers are invisible when it comes to core workforce services. Official data sources aren’t configured to capture the current granularity of employment. Our federal performance metrics are rooted in traditional job-creation. Consider this passivity from the perspective of a taxpayer who has chosen, or been forced into, uncertain gig work. How do we explain why the public sector is ignoring any entitlement to employment support?

Imagine if your fire department failed to acknowledge changes in building materials. Steeped in protection for brick buildings, they lacked incentives, equipment or knowledge to tackle blazes in properties made from new synthetic materials. As a shift away from brick dwellings became unarguable, how might public bodies react? They could train owners of modern dwellings to put out their own fires. Some might collaborate with profit-extracting services that would spring up to fill the gap in municipal provision. Policymakers would need to regulate a bewildering array of opportunists filling gaps in vital public services.

Or, the fire department could modernize.

That is the approach we are forging for workforce services. It’s an uncertain and under-resourced path. But we are beginning to see the leverage workforce boards have to kick-start a better model for the era of flexible working. Even with WIOA (Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act) constraints, there are imaginative ways our traditional support for job seekers can extend to people working hour-by-hour.

We hope you can join our session at the Summit. We plan to define irregular work issues for the public sector, talk through learning from the UK and Long Beach and demonstrate the markets ready for launch across L.A. County. If we can launch successfully in 2019, there will be significant implications, plus opportunities, for state policy and city services. We hope a heatmap of readiness to address these issues around California can be built among participants.

Nick Schultz is executive director of the Pacific Gateway Workforce Investment Network. Wingham Rowan is the director of Beyond Jobs

To register for the 2018 California Economic Summit, visit the official event site and learn about the program and speakers. 


Nick Schultz and Wingham Rowan

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