Whether by choice or by chance, more millennials and young adults have been working in the gig economy. Current and potential new gig workers will need to adjust, though, to thrive during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.

GROWTH IN GIG WORK

The number of gig workers here has indeed been growing. In its Labour Force Report in 2018, the Ministry of Manpower said that there were 210,800 residents who were “own account” workers, or 9.3 per cent of all employed residents.

More than 80 per cent of these workers did gigs or contract work as their primary job.

The roles range from Grab drivers and chefs to graphic artists and tech consultants — a range far broader than many people realise.

While support for gig workers may have been limited in the past, changes are underway.

Freelancers hired by the government, for example, will have a portion of their fees transferred to their MediSave accounts automatically under a Contribute-As-You-Earn pilot scheme. Gig workers may also buy insurance through NTUC Income and Gigacover for long-term medical leave.

Now, though, the Covid-19 pandemic has put many gig jobs at risk.

Business is down at restaurants, more people working at home means fewer Grab or Gojek rides, tuition centres have been closed and companies are cutting back on work for some high-end gig workers.

On Friday (April 3), the Government announced that most workplaces except for essential services and key economic sectors will be shut down for a month, and schools will be closed as well.

SHIFT IN DEMAND

There is a silver lining even though the situation may seem bleak. Online news site Quartz even went so far as to proclaim: “Gig jobs are suddenly looking more secure amid coronavirus.”

While it is true that Grab drivers and fitness instructors may have less work or lose their jobs, economist Julia Pollak of American job-search firm Ziprecruiter told Quartz that “this crisis is really a breakout moment for gig companies and for delivery companies in particular.”

In the United States, for example, demand for workers in transportation and storage has been holding steady, and jobs for food and package deliverers rose.

“Gig jobs are becoming relatively more attractive and secure in some ways,” Ms Pollak said.

The people who can succeed in this fast-changing economy are ones who can pivot fast.

Private-hire car drivers are becoming food delivery drivers, and parents who work full-time jobs are tapping virtual tutors for help as schools shift to distance learning.

Gig workers are providing technology support on Instagram or other media for brick-and-mortar businesses that suddenly need to sell more online, and some creative individuals have started businesses such as coaching online gamers.

Even as tuition centres have shut down and more people working at home means less need for ride-hailing services Grab or Gojek here in Singapore, there are opportunities.

E-commerce and food delivery have risen, for example, and more people working at home may result in a greater need for support for home-office technology.

With schools shifting to home-based learning, parents with full-time jobs are likely to start looking at how to support their child’s online learning.

New opportunities may open up for gig workers who pivot from driving to delivering, or who do personal training, online tutoring or child-minding, or provide tech support.

The Government here has made it easier to make such a shift. In early March, the Ministry of Manpower announced a training allowance of S$7.50 an hour for freelancers attending SkillsFuture courses or selected training programmes.

Later in March, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that freelancers such as taxi drivers, private-hire car drivers, real estate agents and other self-employed persons can receive S$1,000 a month for nine months under the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme to help them during this crisis. The training allowance will also be raised, to S$10 an hour.

CREATING LONGER-TERM OPPORTUNITIES

Once the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, it might seem like the shift in the types of jobs could end and gig jobs could revert back to the previous way of working.

While this scenario is possible, many experts expect the changes to last and perhaps even to speed up.

Ms Pollak of Ziprecruiter said: “That shift to e-commerce, which was already happening very rapidly, is just going to accelerate.”

Ms Karen Harris, managing director of consultancy Bain’s Macro Trends Group in New York, told Bloomberg: “Once effective work-from-home policies are established, they are likely to stick.”

Mr Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, told online magazine Politico that the pandemic will shift the paradigm of where healthcare delivery takes place, from clinics or hospitals to telemedicine and video calls.

Mr Fabrizio Pagani, a former adviser to the prime minister of Italy, expects lasting changes in everything from online schooling and distance learning to industrial strategy as existing business models are reworked.

Even though there are plenty of opportunities, that does not mean the shift is easy.

Some people will lose jobs. Training takes time.

Even for people who do make the shift, their income may be lower than before, at least for a while.

While it can take time to learn new skills or start a business, freelance workers who pivot fast or creatively offer solutions to help people in the new Covid-19 reality may have new job opportunities they never imagined, and they could well turn gig work into a long-term career.

*Written by RICHARD HARTUNG via Today Online*