Background: For decades the United States has been unable to reverse its once proudly held lead in the education of its citizens. A number of major initiatives such as No Child Left Behind have been created and well funded but have failed to improve our mediocre international standing. Each initiative brings with it the goal of better preparing our children for jobs in a 21st century economy but because of technology disruption and other factors, this is a fast moving target.

This article examines one area that will absorb a large segment of the future workforce just as it does today. The Gig Economy employed 57 million people before covid-19 struck, with 29% or 17 million people working full time as Uber drivers, ghost writers or contract programmers. The rest use Gig jobs as “side hustles” to supplement their other employment, many because their primary jobs are capped at 30 hours per week or do not pay a living wage. At almost 60 million workers, these jobs are a huge part of our workforce of 160 million, and something that will most likely grow when the damage from the pandemic is fully weighed out. It will take years before all the job losses from sectors like retail stores, hotels and airlines have been recovered. Displaced and frequently low skilled workers will be forced into gig work.

Gig jobs are sometimes celebrated as freedom for workers to set their own hours and potentially capture a higher wage as they move from one short term engagement to another, receiving a premium to fill a spot market need. Contract programming has been such a market for decades and something that I myself did early in my career. Working at night to supplement a modestly compensated systems development job, I was paid by the hour to design and code a suite of financial applications on a then industry standard mini-computer. As a mainframer, we looked down on these devices but to get paid, I had to learn on the fly with no formal training, The work – essentially a second shift –  was often exhausting but exposed me to a new class of technology and awakened entrepreneurial instincts that proved useful later in my career. The extra income was also welcome.

The same dynamic exists today for other high end, creative skills such as Hollywood script writers and jazz musicians. New bright office facilities such as WeWork cater to the needs of the tech oriented as do sites that provide leads for new gigs.  The reality however for most in the Gig economy is much bleaker and can border on being exploitive. An estimate of the average wage for Uber drivers – once gas and depreciation are factored in – is $9.21, which in large part explains why there is such massive annual turnover. And why all your drivers seem to be new.

What can schools do?

Given that over a third of kids in or entering the workforce will find themselves in the Gig economy, high schools could prepare them with life skills in several areas including:

  • Business and professional skills such as interviewing for a job or reading contracts to see what Gig employers, like Uber, are asking of them
  • Computer based skills such as spreadsheets, website development and coding. Technology has already disrupted their future prospects so it is critical that students be equipped to deal with it.
  • Personal and life skills including personal finance, given that Gig jobs offer no benefits or pensions. Also the ability to collaborate in small teams as well as to communicate clearly.

All of these skills are useful to students on a path to college but even more so to those without plans for a four-year degree. In fact, some of the more enlightened “vocational schools” –  which often prefer to be labelled technical schools – offer computer based curricula that incorporate skills like cyber-security. As the first internet bubble (1998-2000) demonstrated, freshman from colleges were lured away with $100,000 salaries to code for start-ups. There is no reason to believe that an expensive four-year degree is necessary to enter the tech field today.

Many of the higher paying Gig jobs involve project work where teams are created on the fly with diverse talents that must quickly come up to speed, which means rapidly learn what they don’t know and rely on each other’s unique skills to achieve an overall goal. Project planning and management are crucial skills as well as becoming a good team member. Some high schools offer project based learning and one principal of an elite high school believed they should be doing a lot more than one course that they were able to provide.

Another important aspect of Gig work is continuous learning. Workers may be faced with the challenge of doing a half dozen occupations during their careers. Some of this churn is due to the fact that the average life of a Standard and Poor’s 500 company is down to 18 years. Most formal job retraining programs for stranded workers fail so it becomes necessary to retrain oneself to catch the next wave of paid work. The ability to extract technical guidance from typically poorly written product manuals and simplifying but frequently erroneous YouTube videos is key. Also, finding and cultivating mentors to show how things are actually done in the real world. Together these form the basis of continuous learning skills necessary for life.

Going outside of School: Internships – Perhaps the most valuable aspect of an acceptance to an elite university is the quality of the internships provided during breaks from the classroom experience. An internship at Goldman Sachs is a likely on-ramp to the 1% for those lucky enough to grab one. On a much more mundane level, internships could be provided at the high school level to orient students to the world of work. Also to expose them to higher paying jobs such as trades such as plumbing, electrical and HVAC.  Currently those skills are showing large job openings as incumbents are retiring. 

To Summarize: High Schools could better prepare their students for economic uncertainty and to participate in the Gig Economy with these courses:

Core Business SkillsTechnology SkillsPersonal Survival Skills
SpreadsheetsWebsite DevelopmentPersonal Finance
Text ProcessingCodingCollaboration & Teaming
PresentationsData ManagementContinuous Learning
Project PlanningCyber SecurityCommunications
Contract LawNetwork AdministrationEntrepreneurship
On-Line Research

These courses should prove useful to virtually all students but particularly to the two thirds of students who won’t acquire a four year degree. Some are obviously electives but many could be considered as core curricula. Given that we rely on 12 year-olds to manage our home networks and that teens routinely master the most complex games, there is no reason to withhold knowledge that could vastly improve their career trajectories.

Education for 21st Century Jobs Part Two: The Gig Economy

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