The Gig Economy: What’s the Role of Higher Ed?

min read

A new economic reality presents an interesting challenge to educators and educational institutions alike. How can they best prepare students for success as the very definition of work continues to shift?

Woman working on computer and mobile phone

The future of work has arrived, and one of its monikers is the Gig Economy. Spawned by the rise of the Millennial population and the 2008 economic downturn, this emergent labor market is characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work rather than full-time or permanent employment. Roles in the Gig Economy span a variety of scenarios, including the work-on-demand roles characterized by driving services including Uber and Lyft; self-employed creative professionals and technologists; and companies of all sizes that embrace contract workers rather than hiring long-term employees. This new economic reality presents an interesting challenge to educators and educational institutions alike. How can they best prepare students for success as the very definition of work continues to shift?

Connecting Aspiring Entrepreneurs to Campus and Community

One answer can be found on the campuses of community colleges. They offer a practical, skills-based approach to learning that helps students become more marketable in an era in which the distinction between "employee" and "business owner" is blurred. More specifically, some community colleges appear especially well poised to help students develop an important (yet often overlooked) skill linked with success in the Gig Economy: entrepreneurship.

Red Rocks Community College (RRCC) has made it a priority to help students become more entrepreneurial by establishing an Entrepreneur Center on its Lakewood, Colorado, campus. With RRCC colleagues, Center Director and business faculty member Donna Armelino identified the need for a dedicated resource after observing a trend among students: "We started to see a number of students who were interested in learning how they could take or supplement their existing skills to start their own businesses." At the same time, students weren't always able to generate the momentum to convert their initial drive and passion into concrete action. As Armelino says, "I learned that students could get started on an idea, but then the pursuit would slow to the point where they lost interest."

Armelino and her colleagues came to recognize that fostering student entrepreneurship went beyond teaching topics such as marketing and finance. In other words, the development of concrete business skills, while important, was not enough; students needed to change the way they thought about entrepreneurship. Armelino explains that "entrepreneurship is more of a way of thinking: 'How can I capitalize on those opportunities? How can I expand my talents? How do I make my life better by being in an entrepreneurial mind-set?'"

This knowledge strongly informed the planning the Entrepreneur Center, and Armelino and her faculty peers were fully prepared to lead this endeavor, given their extensive experience as small-business owners as well as their connections with the thriving Denver business community. Armelino leveraged this collective experience to develop an entrepreneurial ecosystem that extends beyond the campus. Students can connect with the center at any point, whether they have a business idea or simply are interested in how entrepreneurship fits with their side hustle idea or their future career.

Once they've brought an idea to a certain stage, they can continue to benefit from community resources. Community ties, in fact, play an essential role in instilling a mind-set that sustains budding entrepreneurs' interest beyond the initial excitement of ideation.

Fortunately, the Center offers a plethora of opportunities for students to build on their ideas and capitalize on connections with the local organizations:

  • Sponsored networking events foster relationships and mentoring opportunities between students and small-business professionals.
  • Workshops help students develop their elevator pitch and practice their delivery in front of seasoned entrepreneurs.
  • Students receive membership to the local chamber of commerce.
  • Students have access to an experienced and well-connected business coach, who provides just-in-time advice and insights on product or service-related business plans.

All of these efforts enable ideas initially incubated at the center to grow and prosper beyond the academic environment.

Armelino believes the center is well positioned to impart the philosophy of flexibility and adaptability needed to hone an idea and sustain that vision over time. But her goals extend beyond reaching potential startup founders and future small-business owners. "We want to expand to the entire school population because we now live in an ever-expanding Gig Economy and our students will have to be resourceful—both soon after they graduate and in the decades to come," Armelino says. "They need to learn how to successfully differentiate themselves in the marketplace."

Adopting a New Professional Mind-Set Before Graduation

Four-year institutions are also encouraging students to think differently about their future career paths. Situated in Silicon Valley—an area known as the world's largest startup hub—Santa Clara University is at one of the physical epicenters of entrepreneurism. It may come as no surprise that the institution's business students lean toward establishing their own startups and service-based companies. Terri Griffith, a professor at the university's Leavey School of Business, believes that current students will need to apply broader thinking as they graduate and enter the workforce.

Griffith has been criticized for "giving in" to the trend toward gig work. She freely acknowledges her desire to ensure that her students are ready for nontraditional work arrangements but believes it is the job of educators to prepare students to prosper in any work environment they may encounter. After all, whether one graduates into a bull or bear market is largely unpredictable; students ought to be equipped with the kind of transferable skills to not only survive but thrive, regardless of external circumstances. In other words, rather than focusing on achieving success in a specific economic climate, instructors should focus on providing their students with the flexibility required to adapt to any employment situation or wider economic reality.

The ability to be self-directed and purposeful in one's approach to work is the core of this preparation, which Griffith defines as, "the ability to think in 4T." These four T's (target, talent, technology, and technique) are detailed in her book The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive:

  • Targets are defined as what we need to accomplish.
  • Talent represents our capabilities, learned or innate.
  • Technology encompasses the tools at our disposal, whether they are cutting-edge or tried-and-true.
  • Technique is where it all comes together, as tools and talent are harnessed toward reaching our targets.

According to Griffith, channeling 4T means embracing a work philosophy that shifts our orientation from problem-solving to solution-seeking, a perspective she credits to colleague Hila Lifshitz-Assaf, a professor in New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business. In this orientation, knowledge work transcends traditional professional and knowledge boundaries; instead, it's conducted collaboratively with cross-disciplinary contributors. And finding holistic solutions is exactly where Griffith believes the power of this broader way of thinking comes into play. "All of us must consider what we need to accomplish," she said. "What resources do we have access to? How are we going to make it work?"

College graduates are transitioning to life in a world of work where less value is placed on solving problems within an information silo, while the ability to explore answers that come from a wide variety of sources is coveted. Taking ownership of the process of work as opposed to striving to simply gain credit for the outcome can help them succeed in the Gig Economy and beyond.

Doing so, however, will require graduates to adopt a new approach toward professional accountability. As Griffith puts it, "If we as individuals are more responsible for our own work and development than we've been in past generations, and especially if we take more control of the technologies we use on the job, then all of us must be thinking in 4T."

In the context of the traditional academic sphere, the demands of the Gig Economy present a formidable challenge to educators and their students. But the above examples demonstrate ways in which individual faculty members as well as institutions can play a leading role in preparing students for the future of work.

Kristi DePaul of Founders Marketing provides editorial support and regular contributions to the Transforming Higher Ed column of EDUCAUSE Review on issues of teaching, learning, and edtech.

© 2018 Kristi DePaul. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.