Embracing the gig economy

San Diego Continuing Education student Brandee Ricoy started doing contract gig work taking photos of dogs for nonprofit pet organizations and now co-owns her own for-profit company, the Woof Booth, set-up outside a restaurant in Little Italy. (Photo: Woof Booth)

With huge growth predicted for the gig economy, community colleges are developing programs to help students succeed in that sector.

Some studies predict half of U.S. workers could participate in the gig economy in the next decade, and that is creating opportunities for colleges to enhance their instruction to cover management, marketing, financing and other skills gig workers need – whether they want to be a freelance writer or set up their own housecleaning business.

“As the gig economy becomes more and more prevalent, it’s our responsibility to prepare people and give them the skills they need,” says Rebecca Corbin, president of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship.

Growing a business

Training people for gig work is especially important, as the economy evolves and more people are laid off from traditional jobs and explore career changes, Corbin says. Taking on work on a piecemeal basis can be the first step in creating one’s own business and hiring other people. That’s what the “entrepreneurial mindset” is all about.

Learning how to navigate the gig economy “gives you a lot of freedom to create the life you want,” Corbin adds. Millennials traveling the world, for example, can support themselves by doing IT consulting remotely.

Gig work is also great for people like military spouses who move frequently, notes Charles Eason, business and entrepreneurship sector navigator for the California Community Colleges.

“A lot of people want the flexibility and freedom to choose their own hours,” he says. But to be successful, gig workers have to make sure they make enough money to cover healthcare and retirement, as well as handle all the other costs of having one’s own business.

Eason oversaw the Self-Employment Pathways in the Gig Economy Pilot Project created by the California community college system to help colleges incorporate the gig economy into their curricula. Participating colleges developed a general introductory course on entrepreneurship and a course on how to become a gig worker, using such platforms at Upwork or LinkedIn Gigs, and they matched students with a coach or mentor to help them launch or expand their own business.

While most people think gig jobs are all about driving for Uber or Lyft or making deliveries through DoorDash or similar platforms, “we were trying to focus more on freelancing that pays a living wage,” such as IT consulting or graphic design, Eason says.

“Overall, we learned the gig economy is just another pathway for students to look at for self-employment,” he says. While some students were interested in starting their own businesses, others used the pathway to gain experience and ultimately get a job.

Each college went about this work a little differently. Some of them embedded the gig economy into existing courses and others created new certificate programs. The California system gave participating colleges free access to the online courses developed by Samaschool, a nonprofit based in San Francisco that trains lower-income people for freelance work.

Finding a niche

While the pilot ended a year ago, some of the 24 California community colleges in the pilot are continuing their gig-related efforts. San Diego Continuing Education (SDCD), which is part of the San Diego Community College District, continues to teach an online, 50-hour noncredit course called “Making Money in the Gig Economy.”

Instructor Matthew Rivaldi has his students look at three or four people in the local area with independent businesses, see what skills they have, what kind of work they do and how much they charge – then develop an action plan. Students take a skills assessment and determine what training or certifications they might need.

Some of Rivaldi’s students started out trying to sell a product, had trouble competing in the marketplace, and looked for ways to turn that into a gig. For example, one student who made houses for rabbits and tried to sell them on Etsy couldn’t make a profit, until she decided to specialize in more expensive, customized bunny houses. Several students who marketed their dog-walking businesses by posting flyers on telephone poles learned how to expand their customer base by writing a professional profile on TaskRabbit or creating their own website.

Students who sought gigs as professional organizers learned to create their own niches. One student, for example, saw her business grow after she decided to specialize in decluttering the houses of hoarders who faced health or safety violations.

Rivaldi used “innovation engineering” to develop the course quickly in the face of a rapidly changing economy. He brought in industry professionals, freelancers, students and faculty to brainstorm on what skills, tools and competencies gig workers need to be successful.

Rivaldi would like to develop a certification program but says it would take a year for college officials to approve it, while the climate and laws around the gig economy are changing rapidly.

He notes there is much confusion around a law enacted in California last year that calls for gig workers to be treated as employees. While Uber and Lyft are the most prominent opponents, the law is having unintended consequences in other areas. In one instance, the law is discouraging publishing companies from hiring freelancers.

Upgrading skills

As part of the California pilot program, Sierra College developed non-credit courses for students and the community on how to participate in the gig economy, focusing on using online platforms for finding freelance work in IT, graphic design and related areas.

When the pilot ended, Sierra integrated some of that material into classes on entrepreneurship, web design and IT and a certificate program on media and event production, says Amy Schultz, dean of career, continuing and technical education.

The college also incorporated entrepreneurship across the disciplines. Sierra’s welding program offers a certificate in entrepreneurship, for example, which is designed for people who want to be independent consultants or start their own business.

The challenge, Schultz says, is the lack of data on gig workers. Workforce data comes from the state’s employment development department, so most information about the gig economy is anecdotal.

“We definitely acknowledged there is a need for these skills,” Schultz says. Gig workers need to know how to market themselves, build a reputation, handle customer service and manage their finances. But people who work for themselves also need many of the same skills that people in traditional jobs need, such as problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, she says.

A college goes freelance

Eastern West Virginia Community & Technical College is focusing on the gig economy in a different way: It started hiring freelance staff a few years ago when state appropriations were shrinking, enrollment was declining and “we had a hard time recruiting employees with the right skills and expertise for a college that is isolated and rural,” says President Chuck Terrell.

That effort began with the chief technology officer, who is employed by West Virginia Data Network, works remotely and only needs to come to the campus a couple of times a year, Terrell says.

The college’s “entrepreneur in residence” is also a contracted position and is funded by a private foundation grant, as is the director of the New Biz Launchpad, a business incubator. In addition, the college turned to contracting to fill a part-time position funded by a U.S. Department of Labor grant to develop data processes using Blackboard, a part-time webmaster, public relations manager and human relations specialist.

The website manager lives in the community and is on call and is only paid for the work done. For the PR position, the college needed someone with a wide variety of skills, including social media, graphic design and press relations, so it contracted with 25th Hour Communications, a higher education communications and marketing company, to do the work.

“We gained greater expertise and saved money” with that arrangement, Terrell says.

An entrepreneurial mindset

At Northampton Community College (NCC) in Pennsylvania, preparing students for a gig economy is part of the college’s efforts to “cultivate an innovative, entrepreneurial mindset in our students,” says President Mark Erickson.

Northampton Community College President Mark Erickson congratulates pitch competition winner Brian Duben, a business management student. A former Marine scout sniper, Duben proposed a nonprofit called Rally Point Fabrication to use welding instruction to help veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. (Photo: NCC)

“Our employers want employees who are creative, imaginative thinkers,” he says.

NCC transformed the first floor of a former Bethlehem Steel office building into a center for innovation and entrepreneurship, and launched a maker space it calls a Fab Lab where students can develop ideas and test them.

While most community colleges incorporate their entrepreneurial programs into their business departments, “we’re pushing it across the board,” including into the college’s success course, Erickson says. Gary Schoeniger, founder of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative, led a training course for faculty on the entrepreneurial mindset.

NCC offers a 10-week “startup boot camp” for students interested in getting their business ideas off the ground, and hosts a Shark Tank-like competition for students, with local entrepreneurs reviewing their proposals and grading them.

“People think entrepreneurship is just about business, but it’s part of everything,” Erickson says. “We’re trying to get faculty to understand this.” The college also promotes social entrepreneurship, which he defines as “using entrepreneurial ideas for social good.”

“The focus on entrepreneurship prepares students for the gig economy and prepares them to be much more agile,” Erickson says.

It also lifts their sense of self-esteem, which he says is particularly important for first-generation college students.

“We’re preparing our students to be broad-based thinkers with the confidence and fortitude to go in their own direction – whether that’s creating an app or pushing them to think more expansively,” Erickson says. Entrepreneurship education encourages students “to reach their full potential and take ownership in their own potential,” he adds.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.
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