Quality work on the fringes

How big is this?

Screen Shot 2018-08-03 at 17.25.0935% of the workforce is in irregular employment. Official data gathering is not keeping pace.

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It’s all in the definition

You may have seen estimates putting “gig work” at anything from 2% to 40% of employment. How so? Studies of non-standard employment tend to focus on a particular slice of the pie. To take one example of confusion that often results: In February 2018 USDoL Secretary Acosta told reporters new contingent labor data showed substantial growth that would “force a national debate”.

But final figures said on-demand work had fallen to 1.7%. However, that dataset counted only primary employment and excluded “electronically intermediated” work, independent contractors and shadow working.

We suggest a broad view. Look at: “paid work outside-the-home with no promise of regularity”. Many issues for this workforce will likely be common: uncertainty and overheads of finding periods of work, lack of progression, low pay. On the buyer side; high churn, low motivation and lack of data are likely to be consistent themes.

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Why do official data undercount irregularity?

Two issues:

  • Changing patterns of employmentSources used by Bureau of Labor Statistics tend to measure employment instances: someone starting work for an organization. But someone doing three periods of gig work for different employers this week can create three instances of new employment. It doesn’t mean a trio of jobs created.

Even where there is an on-going employer/ employee relationship, it may not be predicated on regular hours or pay. Official data collection is not configured to pick up these variables.

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  • The shadow/grey/underground economy: Official datasets typically ignore invisible, cash-under-the-table working. But it’s an enormous factor in irregular employment. It’s so easy to ask round local households or small businesses for a few hours’ work with cash at the end.

World Bank economists believe activity that would be legal if taxed and regulated now equals 10-12% of GDP in the US. There’s some home working in those figures. But breakdowns show the majority is out-of-home low-skilled work.

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Numbers are fuzzy, but big.

Taking a broad definition, how many work irregularly? There’s a – sort of – consensus around 35% of the workforce. That includes home freelancing and contingent work which might be full time. But it generally excludes off-the-books employment which is almost all irregular.

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Some headline figures below that consensus:

  • As formal labor market participation has fallen, local shadow economies have grown, even doubled. Estimates of Americans earning off the books seem to settle between 25% (finder.com) and up to 40% (Urban Institute).

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  • Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 11.52.0541% of US hourly workers don’t know next week’s hours. Around 59% of the workforce is hourly. That’s 24% of those in “jobs” who can’t plan next week.

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Some other attention-grabbing findings:

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  • 52% of America’s workers want about 20% more work (Table A-1 at end of report).

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How do these numbers map onto the three cohorts of irregulars? We reckon 20% of the workforce are Core Irregulars, 5% are voluntary and 10% are forced into irregularity; these low figures are all defensible with independent research.

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How can we size irregular employment in our area?

It’s hard. Possibilities include:

  • NACO’s county-by-county breakdown of non-employer businesses in the legitimate economy.
  • BLS count of numbers of people with multiple jobs by state.

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Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 10.53.31There will be rich data on specific types of gig work in any area held by commercial labor markets. But they are not noted for transparent data, or even honesty. Unless some factor makes your area an outlier, you will likely arrive at a 35% educated estimate for irregular employment.

We suggest a more insightful question that can be asked alongside a sizing exercise: What leverage do we have locally that could influence conditions in this part of our labor market? That requires convenings and interviews. They could be structured around a specific aim, like launching a new market for this labor. Or smaller interventions could be tested. It’s all covered in our implementation section.

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