How colleges can serve gig workers


Today’s workforce is experiencing a mindset shift. A rising number of professionals are working for themselves instead of an established company. The primary reason? Flexibility.

In 2021, about 36% of the U.S. workforce was engaged in gig work, according to a study from Upwork.

Gig work isn’t new, but the internet and other technological advances have made it more accessible. The broader question for higher education institutions — and community colleges in particular — is how to support this emerging generation of gig workers.

This article comes from the current issue of AACC’s Community College Journal.

To better understand this growing workforce, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) recently partnered with Team NEO, a regional economic development group in Northeast Ohio.

The resulting report, “The Gig Workforce Isn’t Just Delivering Dinner,” dispels common myths around gig workers and highlights how Tri-C can help integrate them into the regional workforce through ongoing education and support.

Most gig workers have at least an associate degree or some level of technical training, along with skill sets that align with employer needs. That can save employers time and resources compared with the hiring processes and benefits packages necessary for full-time employees.

Given gig workers’ relatively high levels of education, specialized skills, entrepreneurial mindsets and desire for flexibility, community colleges have an opportunity to reassess their understanding of work and education.

To further engage and support current and aspiring gig workers, Tri-C is taking the following steps:

Raising awareness of and advocating for gig workforce opportunities

Our report revealed the public’s limited understanding of the nature of gig work, including the top industries and occupations. As leaders in your respective communities, you can promote gig workers as an untapped resource in the labor market.

In conversations with business leaders and existing workforce partners, consider how you can support employers who may not have the structure or policies in place to integrate gig workers into their processes.

Collaborating with stakeholders

Collaborate with community stakeholders — including instructors, business owners, students, workers and employers — to make sure your curricula are relevant to employer needs. Doing so conveys that the skills taught are always relevant to employer needs in the gig economy.

Engage your alumni who are already working in the gig economy to serve as ambassadors. Discuss programs or courses that helped them excel and their ideas for new programs.

Leveraging existing programs and resources

Tri-C already has professional development training and small business programs that can help workers be more competitive. In addition to preparing students for traditional employment, Tri-C developed a series of programs and certificates that offer in-demand skills such as leadership, finance, project management and marketing.

By providing flexible routes — such as online programs, competency-based education, hybrid options and compressed schedules — community colleges can help this segment of workers become more economically mobile and achieve their career goals.

Investing in and promoting entrepreneurial resources

While gig workers bring specialized skill sets to the table — such as computer, design or healthcare expertise — they may lack the skills essential for the entrepreneurial side of their business.

Tri-C recently launched the Center for Entrepreneurs at our Corporate College division, which aligns professional development offerings and our workforce training division. Courses are organized into four tracks based on the stages of business growth, from defining an idea to expanding operations. Instructors and workshop series cover topics such as mentoring programs, professional development and networking opportunities. This approach can serve as a model for community colleges.

When marketing a program to gig-minded students, institutions can promote the program outcomes and accessibility, as well as custom training that gig workers can tailor to their needs.

Investing in equitable training programs and resources for underrepresented gig workers

Community colleges can consider investing in additional support — such as funding, scholarships and special counseling services — to ensure that marginalized groups have access to the same opportunities and resources as the broader population of current and potential gig workers.

Peer mentorships may also be helpful, with institutions pairing gig-minded students to discuss challenges, exchange best practices and explore gig career paths together.

The gig economy is here to stay. It’s up to community colleges to shift their mindsets to support entrepreneurial training to reach this segment of workers.

About the Author

Michael A. Baston
Michael A. Baston, Ed.D., J.D., is president of Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio and serves on the American Association of Community Colleges board of directors.
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