What the ‘gig’ economy means for graduates and their employers

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Oct 20, 2016

Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, a learning design firm, and his team have been running a substantial series on their blog for the last few months called “It’s a Project-Based World.” The series has attracted a lot of attention for its recommendations for educators, but the changes Vander Ark and his team have been writing about have big implications for graduates and employers as well. I caught up with Tom and asked him a series of questions. The question-and-answer forms an important complement to my piece last week, “Tackling The Education-To-Employment Gap.”

Michael Horn: You’ve been running a series on your Getting Smart blog for the last few months called “It’s a Project-Based World.” What are the conditions in the working world that motivated you to do this?

Tom Vander Ark: We’ve been talking about big changes in the new economy. Over 70 percent of Americans have used some sort of shared or on-demand service, whether it’s Uber for rides or TaskRabbit for tasks. One-third of American workers are now engaged in some kind of freelancing, project-based work. By 2020, about four in 10, or about 91 million, Americans will be engaged in quick “gigs” and project-based work. We also think an equal number will work on or manage projects for organizations. Many people will go back and forth between contractor and employee for periods of time in the project-based and idea economy. It’s time for a national conversation about how this is impacting students, the design of schools and also their future employers.

Horn: As workers and society were transitioning to the conditions the Industrial Revolution imposed, they also held lots of jobs before it became common for people to hold 1 or 2 jobs in the course of their entire lifetime. What’s different about this time?

Vander Ark: We can sum it up this way. Robin Chase, the co-founder of Zipcar, the world’s largest car sharing company in the world, said: “My father had one job in his life, I’ve had six in mine, my kids will have six at the same time.”

In our GenDIY series, chronicling the lives of youth charting their own course, there are many young people who hold a dozen jobs in a decade after high school. For freelancers, it can easily be a dozen jobs each year. For most workers, it will be a series of projects that mark their career rather than years of service for a particular organization. Shifts in the economy will be a driving force for determining careers for many young people, whether by choice or necessity.

Although the trend toward freelance and/or project-based work is not news to many of us in the business world, there is a gap between economic realities and current school preparation.

Horn: This suggests that education will need to change in significant ways, as you’ve been arguing. What can employers though do to help?

Vander Ark: We are big fans of listening to the business community leaders about ensuring career readiness. Jim Postl, former CEO of Nabisco International, recently wrote: “Deeper learning, including project-based learning, reflects the realities of the modern, global marketplace. Employers need workers who possess executive-functioning skills, as well as the practical knowledge that comes with career and technical education. We also know that the 21st-century economy increasingly relies on a project-centric approach, which is why a curriculum that embraces project concepts better prepares students for the workplace.”

The business community can encourage real world work. Whenever working for and with young people, encourage them to show you what they can do and think of ways your business/organization can support their work. At Raisbeck Aviation High School in the Highline School District, many high school juniors and seniors were interning with employees at Boeing and other aviation companies.

Business people can also be mentors. We need to be go beyond shadow days and encourage students to work alongside experts to solve challenging and real world problems. This could include having a student do project work at your organization.

Robin Willner, a former director at IBM who currently is a director at PTECH, a new, grades 9-14 model of early college high school started in New York that offers graduates a high school diploma, AAS degree and the opportunity to be first in line for a job at IBM, recently wrote: “For employers, our students become valuable partners and co-creators. The schools they attend emerge as rich resources in the community, offering direct benefits to students and participating companies and long-term growth for all.”

Horn: You are an optimist by nature, but as we look back 10 years from now, what will have been the biggest struggle in this transition? What can we do to get ahead of it?

Vander Ark: A big challenge for employers is going to be investing in training and development of people that do not plan to stay in their companies for their entire careers. The new mindset is people moving in and out of big organizations so there is less loyalty than there used to be, so naturally there is some hesitancy to invest in training.

Just like schools, employers are re-engineering their learning systems to support a project-based workplace. Summit Public Schools does this with their platform where they have playlists to support projects. Similarly, companies are trying to adapt or develop learning systems that support learning for projects and during projects, so they get people ready to participate in a project or provide real time scaffolding inside a project and do that in a way that is both efficient and personalized.

It’s also important to note that social-emotional learning (SEL) is involved in this work. As we think about human development in a project- based workplace, it’s not just the technical skills that you need to be successful on a team. You will also need dispositions and attitudes to be successful on a team and be successful on projects.

We need to move beyond the job shadow idea into finding ways to engage young people in meaningful work. We should invite them into the novelty and complexity of the new workplace so they can fully appreciate the demands of the new economy and internalize the high expectations that are required for speed, accuracy and quality. Magic happens when young people internalize high expectations.

We need to rethink how we bring community into the school and the school out into the community to create powerful learning experiences for and with all students.

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Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.