As postsecondary institutions scramble to better meet the needs of today’s students, what does the burgeoning ‘gig economy’ mean for higher education?

Estimates for the size of the gig economy vary, but some estimates place it as high as 34% of the current workforce and project that it could reach 43% by the year 2020. In fact, this economy that thrives on independent contractors and short-term workers has become so large that the California Supreme Court recently ruled that gig-economy companies, such as Uber and Grubhub, must change their employee status litmus test to better protect the rights of these contingent workers.

Forbes observes gig work often lacks consistency and traditional benefits like health insurance, but for Millennials craving independence and aligning personal values to work, this emerging economy provides an opportunity to satisfy these goals.

What does the gig economy mean for higher education, graduates and employers?

Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, a learning design firm, and his team have been running a series on their blog called “It’s a Project-Based World,” The series focused on making 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 Vander Ark and asked him his thoughts on aligning education to the gig economy:

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 one or two 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 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, 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.

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.

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. 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.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.