Updated: June 20, 2020 9:18:04 am
COVID-19 has induced a domino effect in the global job market. A few days ago, a strange message landed in my LinkedIn inbox: Desperation was written all over the poignant plea for a job opening. Jobless since March, with an aged COVID positive mother to support, this highly qualified professional is now part of the gig economy. The word “gig”, associated till not too long ago with a group of travelling musicians, subsumes in its current parlance all freelancers, disconnected from the workplace. The drivers of Uber, the delivery boys of Zomato, the plumbers and electricians of Urban Clap make up the gig world. Mobility connects them; mobile empowers them. The gig economy is not confined to low-skilled jobs. Free-spirited mavericks find solace in it, as do creative geniuses.
The pre-COVID-19 phase had seen an explosion of opportunities in the shared economy, riding on digital platform technologies. A Gallup study of 2018 estimated that 36 per cent of American workers had a gig working arrangement in some capacity. This was a marker of the growing global trend. The pandemic is now reshaping that gig universe. In the words of Raghuram Rajan “the gig economy, which looked so wonderful when things were going swimmingly, is going to look a lot more precarious”. The classic gig anchors, including pioneers of the shared economy, Uber and AirBnB, have laid off thousands of people. In contrast to this, highly skilled professionals — handed pink slips by employers — are joining the gig bandwagon. Aviation, hospitality, automobile entertainment and retail are the hardest hit sectors. Even journalism is under threat. Unaccustomed with the navigational tools of the gig arena, these professionals are facing a new anxiety. Job demand will far outstrip supply, at least in the short-term. Downsizing will become more pervasive as cost-cutting becomes inescapable. What does the future hold for the swelling number of people around the world, hurtling into the nebulous gig space?
A Deloitte report from April — Future of work accelerated — notes that Indian organisations are considering to expand the share of gig workers, as dependence on full-time workers reduces. With shrinking full-time jobs, assignment-based hiring will become the norm. For instance, a graphic designer working from home could be in demand with a media house. A company like Netflix would seek AI experts, paid by the hour, to personalise streaming experiences. A matchmaker is needed to connect firms with qualified candidates. Job portals have, hitherto, been geared towards full-time employment and blue-collared workers. The missing link in the talent marketplace is a national database of job seekers and job creators. A prospective employee would need access to a job database, sorted by skill, geography, duration and emoluments. Companies should be able to dip into the data pool of talent, experience, location, qualification and expectation. Currently, both data sets are fragmented and stored in silos. The government could play the role of a facilitator, in partnership with the private sector, to create a unified database to provide efficient hiring solutions. People working from home, out of choice or compulsion, would get a credible medium to find the best fit for their skills.
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A post-COVID world would need to redefine the rules of office. Technology offers adequate solutions for distributed, collaborative workplaces. In some cases, this flexibility even infuses greater productivity. At the same time, joining the gig economy increases employee vulnerability. Hence, this segment of the economy, so far outside the ambit of regulatory labour policies, now merits attention. The current crisis should force a discussion on the levels of social protection which should be available to gig workers including wage protection, health benefits and safety assurance. The Karnataka government, in fact, has reportedly commenced deliberations for introducing a new labour legislation focused on the gig economy.
The compass of higher education has always pointed in the direction of white collar jobs — this calls for a recalibration. The placement cells of colleges and universities would need to reorient and focus on preparing students for freelancing opportunities, apart from regular campus placements. This warrants a reorientation of expectations for taking a solo plunge into the world of work. For the educated youth, this could be the first step towards entrepreneurship. Gender is another crucial dimension of the digital labour markets. The low enrolment of girls for higher education in science, technology, engineering and math would constrict their universe of opportunity in the gig world. Going ahead, this would need greater policy attention to ensure gender parity.
It may be impertinent to hazard a guess on how much the current contagion would alter traditional jobs. Those at the threshold of employment, as well as those on the brink of unemployment, are equally perplexed. New tools and skills are required to survive in the gig economy. Great opportunity cohabits with great risk in the new economy. Therefore, the government and the private sector would need to collaborate along with academia to build adequate safeguards in the unfolding eco-system.
This article appeared in the print edition on June 20, 2020 under the title ‘A reworked landscape’. The author is an IAS officer. Views are personal.
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