Trends to Watch

Alternative Talent: Tapping into ‘Gig Workers’

As a leader, manager, team player, or individual contributor, we can all identify with resource constraints and the allocation of “special” projects that will take “only 25 percent of your time.” 

In global mobility and many other industries, seasonality can be a talent killer. For mobility, this is the case all summer, compounded with family holiday schedules that also need covering. The season is a petri dish of burnout. In addition, the complexity of policy counseling and coordination of multiple suppliers around the world, managing exceptions, being timely, and making a connection with your transferee makes finding and training talent a long tail. 

What if we circled back to a concept that is both old and new: seasonal and on-demand talent? It goes without saying that many of the untapped talent sources in our—yes, aging—industry have deep experience and a bevy of useful skills. This is also true of expat spouses, retired relocation counselors, and a host of people across various services supporting the industry who are looking to work, but maybe not traditionally. What if we pulled in some of these talented people by allocating 1099s and contracts for special projects that required a bunch of skills that are difficult to find in one person? What if there were an on-demand site for people connected to the industry, on which you could post your project’s scope, needs, and budget? It’s not far-fetched, nor is it new; it is just more prolific, and the pool is much larger than in the past.

Drivers of this new paradigm are pretty well documented. The last recession had a significant impact on four generations of workers. It swung into focus what a growing number of people want: time, and freedom to use a diverse and acquired skill set that doesn’t fit a day-to-day job description and to continue to learn and contribute in a professional and meaningful way. These people aren’t drifters, they aren’t lazy, and they are professionals. 

This all sounds reasonable, but what does the data say? There are some misleading facts and figures out there, but the trend isn’t a coming trend or megatrend—it is now. The industry and companies can harness this talent in awesome ways, but we’ll get to that. Let’s look at some of the numbers and then some of the pros and cons. 

The Numbers

The number of such “gig workers” most people have probably read is 20 million by 2020. This is widely disputed or considered a little aggressive. What is clear, however, is that the trend is upward and the numbers are increasing. What the numbers tell us, without a crystal ball, is that the war for talent has another battlefield. For instance, in Mercer’s “2017 Global Talent Trends Study,” 93 percent of organizations worldwide reported they are planning to redesign their structure in the next two years—yet only 4 percent of business executives said their organization is “change-agile.”

Getting at these numbers takes quite a bit of digging—1099/W-9 reporting is not easy to extract from the IRS. However, government interest has been focused on the increase in these work arrangements for some time. The Census Bureau’s count of what it calls “nonemployer businesses”—also based on tax data—rose almost 60 percent from 1997 to 2015. And a study released last year by economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger found that those in “alternative work arrangements,” such as independent contracting and on-call jobs, had jumped to 15.8 percent of the workforce in 2015, from 10.1 percent in 2005. 

If you do a quick job search for contract jobs, you will see progressive employers are ahead of the curve by offering contract workers access to some of the same benefits as a full-time employee. Why go out of your way to design specific programs for these workers? It’s not to be nice. These companies realize that this talent pool is a rich source for a variety of needs. And yet, the Mercer study found, “Both the C-suite and human resource leaders agree that they do not expect the ‘gig economy’ to have a major impact on their business in the next two years.” But the remarkable growth of the gig economy makes it a risk for any organization to ignore opportunities for people to work more independently.

The Cons

Let’s explore cons first, because they tend to shape the first line of thinking. You must weigh whether the cons swing more to the unacceptable risk column for your organization.

  • The buzz around unionization or representation for these alternative workers is out there. Treat a 1099 filer right. You can open some of your benefits to them, as Microsoft and other companies do for contract workers.
  • The data driving the numbers around nonemployer (gig) arrangements can be highly skewed by on-demand megas such as Uber and Airbnb. These people are not the focus of this article, but they represent the same underlying social aspiration to have flexibility (over benefits) and to control one’s destiny.
  • Depending on your organization, you may have other tax or caps on the types of workers—e.g., reductions in force (RIFs)—you can bring on board to fill gaps.
  • Contract work and 1099s will soon hit the HR benefits world. It will demand a strategy around access to benefits and creating an environment to attract this type of talent. Often this can take a few years—hopefully less!—to formalize, depending on the size of your organization.
  • You get a dud. It happens. It’s not the right fit, or the person isn’t quite getting it. The con is time and dollars lost; the pro, depending on your contract—and nondisclosure agreement (NDA) terms—is that there isn’t a performance plan. It’s “thank you, but this isn’t working out for us. …”

The Pros

The pros, aside from the obvious, are also compelling.

  • Diversity. Yep. Someone coming in from another walk of life can be good for your project or need. These folks aren’t stuck in politics or land mines—although they should learn them—so people are generally more open to the fact that they see things a wee bit differently. 
  • You usually end up with someone who is four-in-one. They can navigate and see implications, ask the right questions, cut through anticipated roadblocks, and generally deliver their projects on time with full accountability.
  • Instead of a job board, the industry can easily replicate Upwork, FlexJobs, or other independent job-finding platforms, with the addition of industry-specific skills. 
  • Contract to hire. Not every person who contracts may want to come on full time, but it’s a good way to read each other and see if there is a good fit. Plus, even if they want part-time work, they can likely do more part time than others can do full time and help you over your gap.
  • They can be, if given the latitude, great mentors for team members. They are not in competition per se and like to share their knowledge.
  • Most 1099 and other workers aren’t relying on you or your project to grow them. They are pushing and stretching themselves and enjoying the challenge of the project, and they have their own set of skills that they maintain.
  • The nut of it is, why would you miss a screaming HR opportunity to be agile, access a great talent pool, and introduce different thinking into a project?

How Can You Tap Into This Potential Pool Today?

You probably already do, without a label, via networking and the grapevine. “I heard so-and-so is looking to move or do consulting. …” From conversations posted to LinkedIn, these are viable and readily available paths.

Ask if HR can run reports on employees who left in good standing or retired. Of course, there are rules around retirement and the ability to return within certain time frames, but it’s a little like the reverse of how you approach today’s talent pool (high-potentials). 

Keep track of those out there to see whether they can help fill a hiring gap or temporary need. Especially in relocation, you have great expats, consultants from destination service providers, and a diverse pool of people who have crisscrossed from relocation management company to supplier set to internal client HR. 

Like most job descriptions today, many people still want someone to apply who can do everything in the job description. No one wants to spend consultant or project dollars without the benefit of the core capabilities, but don’t box someone in. Take the time to ask some questions that will provide insight into some of their other skills. 

In summary, any employment engagement carries risk. The goal of this article is to stir up conversations about how to support your talent, use the growing trend of available talent to outsource some projects or needs, and potentially build a pipeline of future candidates based on exposure from your test drive.

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