Are gig workers’ learning needs a job for businesses?

As self-employment becomes more prevalent, there are some profound questions for L&D, says Stephen Humphreys

Using freelancers and self-employed ‘gig’ workers is now a mainstream way to source labour for companies of all sizes. Contractors, programme directors, front-line service providers, call centre agents, designers, writers… it seems like everyone has a gig these days. Around 20 per cent of companies are expected to outsource work to self-employed providers by 2020, in order to cut costs and achieve their expected growth projections. 

The divide between classifying those who work for gig economy companies as either workers or self-employed is narrowing all the time. As the recent case involving courier Hermes demonstrated, judges are ruling in favour of the former when it comes to workplace rights. Some companies are also voluntarily offering their gig economy workers enhanced contracts with additional rights, including holiday pay and guaranteed minimum wages.

What’s interesting is that it has taken this long, and a high court ruling, to trigger a change. Yet the people in question are very often those working at the coal face. They are the ones who interact most closely with the end customer. When you order a takeaway from a company like Deliveroo, what is the most memorable aspect of the service?  When your food turns up, duly delivered by a self-employed rider. 

Gig economy companies should appreciate that many of their most significant customer interactions are being completed by people who are not actually employees in the traditional sense. Even if they are only representing your brand for a very short time, they have an impact and need developing. If they don’t have the right skill sets and attitude, it’s potentially doing their brands a big disservice.

Deliveroo clearly understands this and offers all its delivery workers access to online learning. The vast majority of them are self-employed, but they have a huge impact on company culture and the fact they are not on the payroll is pretty academic. They need the opportunity to learn new skills and improve their communications and customer service capabilities. A company like Deliveroo cannot sustain its growth ambitions without the support of a multi-skilled and motivated workforce. 

As self-employment and freelancing become increasingly normal and more people have portfolio careers, this raises an important question for all L&D specialists. Who should be responsible for learning and development? If training courses are only considered important for the officially employed, where does that leave everyone else? Is it possible to have a two-tier workforce? And what does it mean for learning and development as an organisational function? 

L&D is evolving very fast and is increasingly placing the control and impetus for learning in the hands of workers themselves, who are becoming self-directed learners. They are motivated very differently and it’s rather like gig working. Many people prefer to freelance or stay self-employed rather than have a regular job, because of the flexibility and freedom it offers them to pursue other interests. The same ‘self-employed’ logic applies to self-directed learning. Based on the premise that all learning is good, they want the freedom to access resources that allow them to study what interests them and will be most beneficial. 

Research completed by one of our automotive customers internally verified this. It showed the company’s employees were very interested in being developed personally and professionally. In particular those who worked remotely wanted more control over their own development and the opportunity to access learning resources from any location. The same applies to gig workers.

Companies need to appreciate that to get the best possible outcomes from people, whether they have a fully employed workforce or rely on freelancers, it’s important to create a sense of equality and provide flexible, accessible learning opportunities for everyone.

Stephen Humphreys is an e-learning expert and general manager of GoodHabitz