Staffing Associations via the Gig Economy

If a sizable number of future workers will be independent contractors or “gig” workers, associations will want to tap this growing source of talent to augment their staff teams.

The size of the so-called gig economy is disputed. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released data indicating this segment isn’t growing. Other survey data and reports suggest otherwise. After doing a meta-analysis of multiple reports, one observer concluded “11% of the working adult population in the US are working primarily as fulltime independent contractors in the gig economy”. That tracks well with the BLS data that found 6.9% of US workers are independent contractors and 3.8 percent are contingent workers. In the UK and Europe, government data estimate 15% of workers are in the gig economy.

An EY survey estimated that contingent workers make up 17% of the workforce in global companies with many companies ready to hire more. A McKinsey Global Institute report assessing the gig economy concludes 20-30% of the working population in the US and Europe fit this description. That’s the source of much of the difference in the data: no one quite defines the gig economy or worker classifications in the same way. What matters most is anticipating the strategic direction of this change and sufficient evidence shows it is real and likely to grow.

Associations ultimately accepted remote work and telecommuting as viable workforce strategies. Some pioneering associations have even gone fully “virtual”. The next evolution in association workforce strategy could be teaming free agents and association staff into a blended workforce designed for peak performance.

Associations should contemplate a future where one in ten or even one in five people staffing their organizations could be freelancers and independent contractors. Associations do turn to consultants for special expertise and contract workers to manage major events. They fill vacancies at every level with temporary or interim employees. Seeing these contingent workers as an essential part of workforce recruitment and management would be a shift.

The BLS survey found one in three independent contractors were age 55 or older. These older workers could bring experience and wisdom to key positions. Increasingly this looks like a way some people are managing retirement—which might forestall any baby boomer brain drain from associations.

BLS also found that 79% of independent contractors prefer their arrangement over a traditional job; they seem to enjoy the flexibility and work-life balance these alternatives offer. Many talented people will decide going independent is the lifestyle they want, 

Association executives may worry that free agents will be less engaged or committed to an organization's work. The incentives that drive independents are different, but their sense of success and meaning derives from the association's success.

Gig workers can bring bursts of enthusiasm and perspective to help employed staff teams complete projects and achieve goals. What's important is how well any blended talent team--staff, gig or volunteer--coordinates to achieve a desired outcome. 

A blended workforce model can give associations the expertise, capacity and flexibility to move on new opportunities. The success of this model will depend on a growing cadre of independents who understand and love working with associations as a career and business opportunity whatever their employment status might be.