[Robert J. Bowman]
Many worry that the much-ballyhooed gig economy is merely a stepping stone to a time when all of those jobs will be performed by robots. But don’t tell that to Brett Helling.
It’s hardly surprising that Helling would reject that bleak vision of the future, given that he’s the founder of Gigworker.com, an information resource for gig-economy opportunities and related issues. Even so, he’s adamant that many of the tasks being performed today by flesh-and-blood workers will continue to be done in that same manner for the foreseeable future.
“With the rise of robotics,” Helling says, “jobs won’t be lost as much, as new jobs will be created, and this means that freelancers will have the majority of those jobs that are created.”
He sees technology as a complement to human effort, not a replacement for it. Freelance writers, for example, can use software built on artificial intelligence to improve their work. And workers who are forced to turn over repetitive tasks to machines could theoretically be retrained to undertake more challenging assignments.
Helling does acknowledge the threat to drivers who populate the burgeoning rideshare sector. Self-driving vehicles, while not as advanced as their creators claim, will eventually take over the task of delivering many items ordered online, whether in the form of passenger vehicles, vans, drones or sidewalk robots.
Automation has had a huge impact in the warehouse, where robots seem ideally suited for routine putaway and picking. But even Amazon, with its commitment to technology, has continued to use humans side-by-side with robots in its giant distribution centers. “A robot can get items from the shelf, but the person working in the warehouse can be more efficient in sorting and packing,” Helling says. “That’s an example where gig-economy workers can use technology to become more efficient.”
Automation will open up a wealth of new opportunities for humans in the area of tech support, he believes. Apps and robots can take over mundane tasks such as data entry and manipulation of spreadsheets. But humans will still be needed to do the programming.
“If you understand how systems work,” says Helling, “you’re going to be in high demand by the company.”
Whether those higher-level jobs will be filled by gig workers or full-timers is another question entirely. Helling believes it will be a mixture of both. Fortune 500 companies with big IT budgets will likely hire programmers and support staffers on a full-time basis. But smaller businesses are apt to adopt the “fractional” model, relying on part-timers to carry out certain basic tasks such as accounting. “It leads to a lot of efficiencies for companies doing that,” Helling says.
The dual approach to hiring raises another key question in the modern-day economy: how to integrate permanent workers with part-timers. Ironically, Helling has experienced the dilemma himself, having encountered resistance from his full-time workers when they were asked to work on a project with independent contractors. Some permanent staffers saw the latter as a threat to their positions.
Much of the gig work being done today calls for little in the way of developed skills, resulting in high turnover rates and low job security. The opposite is true where a higher level of expertise is required, such as in programming.
“In more creative and technically proficient roles, there’s a lot of job security and a ton of demand,” Helling says. Frequently such individuals can dictate where and how often they work. “They’re the ones who are going to do the best in this gig economy.”
Higher-skilled gig workers are more likely to be working full-time — or so goes the theory. Gig-dependent companies such as Uber and Lyft were conceived as opportunities for individuals who are already employed and want to make some extra cash on the side. What’s happened is that many so-called crowd-sourced drivers have come to rely on the job as their sole source of income. So when automation arrives in the form of self-driving cars, they’ll feel the pain the most.
Yet another cloud hanging over the gig economy is a gathering move to regulate the industry, forcing companies that rely heavily on independent contractors to bring them on full-time, with benefits. California’s new AB 5 law has sent shock waves through the gig world, with some workers grateful for the shot at a full-time position, and others determined to maintain their independent status, regardless of how many hours they devote to a single employer. The legal ramifications of AB 5 as they relate to the trucking industry are currently being hashed out in the courts. Helling calls it “an existential threat to the gig economy as a whole.”
Nevertheless, he remains bullish on the future of the gig economy, complete with humans doing the work. “It comes down to perception, and resistance to change,” he says. “It’s going to unlock freedom and flexibility for the masses.”