Hiding in plain sight? The rise of the professional gig economy

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A recent report from Source Global Research, published by Odgers Connect, sheds light on what it coins the “professional gig economy”. People working in this sector are highly-skilled, experienced independent professionals who do not want to climb the corporate consulting firm ladder. Instead, they prefer the independence and flexibility contracting can offer. In other words, these are the people IPSE has been championing for almost twenty years.

According to the research, organisations have been quick to take advantage of this growing talent pool for three main reasons. First, companies engaging independent professionals say they deliver higher-quality work than traditional, larger consultancies. This is because, while larger consultancies may provide good quality expertise across a broad range of areas, independent professionals can become highly specialised, mastering a specific area of work. Second, as independent consultants don’t have the overheads of larger firms, they can offer this expertise at a lower rate.

Above all, independent professionals enable companies to access highly-specialised skills as and when they need them, providing a level of flexibility that traditional consulting firms can’t compete with. In fact, almost half of organisations say flexibility is an important reason for selecting an independent consultant over a conventional firm – making this factor even more important than price. And, as organisations grapple with the uncertainty of Brexit, this trend is set to accelerate further. Companies will increasingly need professional support to navigate through these uncertain times, while seeking to avoid the risk of hiring more employees. So, while Brexit may cause a slowdown in the consulting market generally, it could actually lead to a boom for independent consultants.

Given the flexibility, expertise and value that independent consultants provide, it is not surprising that the “professional gig economy” is going from strength to strength. 40 per cent of organisations already divide their consulting support fairly evenly between traditional management consulting firms and independent consultants. With independent consultants delivering around £2bn of work a year – as well as other advantages – it looks as if this “quiet revolution” is here to stay.

What is interesting is that the report has chosen to use the term “professional gig economy” to depict this rise of independent consultants. This term might be slightly misleading to some, as those in what the report calls the “professional gig economy” do not necessarily use platforms to find work. Indeed, the term “gig economy” has become highly controversial. For some, the gig economy is something to celebrate: a modern way of working that encourages freedom and flexibility. For others, it is an exploitative model that deprives workers of employment rights.

Confusion in the mainstream media about what the gig economy actually is has added fuel to the fire. On one hand, couriers and drivers have become synonymous with “gig work”, overlooking the way people are using platforms to find work across a range of sectors. On the other hand, gig work has become confusingly conflated with wider self-employment, to the extent that all independent professionals are portrayed as precarious workers on unsustainably low wages.

Putting concerns about language aside, the reality is that project-based work is growing across a range of sectors and professions. And, by highlighting the positive role that independent professionals play in our modern, flexible labour market, the report provides much-needed balance to the debate.

As the shift to more flexible work transforms the professions, it is essential that the experiences of the people driving this change – from professional contractors to freelancers – are heard in the growing debate about this area. Concern about unregulated work at the low-end of the gig economy is important – but this is not the whole story. The “gig economy” is just one form of project-based work and represents a relatively small part of self-employment. Policymakers should work to celebrate the opportunities that the gig economy and other kinds of flexible work provide, while also protecting the rights of people at the lower end of the scale.  

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Imogen Farhan

Policy and External Affairs Officer