4 skills students need to succeed in a gig economy

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4 skills students need to succeed in a gig economy

Freelance and contract work are among the fastest growing jobs on the market, but students may not be prepared to be their own boss, writes Stephanie Vozza for Fast Company.


U.S. workers are freelancers or self-employed
U.S. workers are freelancers or self-employed

53 million U.S. workers are freelancers or self-employed, representing a 400% growth in freelancers since 2005, the Wall Street Journal reports. And the number of self-employed Americans will likely triple by 2020, according to a study by FreshBooks. The trend toward gig work is already impacting millennials in the workforce, and will shape the careers of current Gen Z students, explains Grace Anderson, a senior analyst with EAB‘s Professional & Adult Education Forum.

In 2018, Freshbooks partnered with Research Now to conduct a two-year study on self-employment. Researchers surveyed more than 2,700 Americans working full-time as either traditional employees, independent professionals, or small business owners, writes Amy Wang for Quartz. Of the next wave of self-employed workers, 42% will be millennials, according to the survey.

Self-employment is not an easy career move, writes Wang. But as the gig economy grows, students and recent grads may be swayed by self-employment’s promise of autonomy and creativity, she adds.

“The shift towards self-employment indicates that the ‘encore career’ is no longer confined to adults in their 50s and 60s,” according to EAB research. “Millennials refuse to wait until retirement to pursue a job they are passionate about or to work a schedule that allows for more family time. Instead, this generation seeks to launch their encore careers in their late 20s or early 30s.”

Millennials refuse to wait until retirement to pursue a job they are passionate about or to work a schedule that allows for more family time. Instead, this generation seeks to launch their encore careers in their late 20s or early 30s.

EAB research

Whether they intend to be fully self-employed or start a side hustle, students who enter the gig economy need to be adaptable, Jeffrey Selingo wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2016. Previously, students could specialize in one academic area and apply that specific skillset throughout their careers, he adds.

Today, however, students need to “continually build, expand, and refresh their skills in order to stay competitive,” says Laurie Pickard, author of Don’t Pay for Your MBA.

Speaking to several gig economy experts, Vozza identifies the skills students need to succeed in self-employment.

Skill 1: Learn from failure. To keep up with a changing marketplace, students have to be comfortable experimenting and learning from their failures, says Marion McGovern, author of Thriving in the Gig Economy. Too often, students worry so much about reaching the right answer that they don’t experiment, she adds. But in the business world, “failure is just another point of departure,” says Jeff Booth, founder of BuildDirect.

Skill 2: Be your best employee. In the gig economy, students need to be their own boss—and their own employee. Few students understand what it takes to be a good worker, but those who practice being a good employee will win more clients, says McGovern.

Skill 3: Know your finances. Self-employment can come with uneven cash flow. Gig workers need to understand how to manage their expenses when they aren’t expecting a steady revenue, says Diane Mulcahy, an adjunct lecturer on entrepreneurship at Babson College.

Skill 4: Sell your strengths. Every freelance worker needs know how to sell their services, says Pickard. Gig workers can’t just deliver a product, they need to be their own “sales, branding, [and] marketing,” she adds.

Some institutions are repackaging existing coursework to be freelance-friendly, offering classes online and using a rotating selection of electives to make sure they’re teaching the skills working adults need most, notes Anderson.

Others are establishing innovation hubs and certificate portfolios to help students take their side hustles to the next level. Emory University, for example, offers “personal enrichment” certificates in subjects creative writing, digital photography,  and landscape design. And Georgia Institute of Technology‘s CREATE-X program has founded 81 student startups, which have collectively earned two million dollars through investments in just three years.

Even students who bypass the gig economy can use entrepreneurial skills to get ahead, says Mulcahy. Students who take professional development into their own hands will have a greater chance of building income security down the line, she argues.

Sources: Cain, Business Insider, 11/9/17; Gernon, CNBC, 7/23/17; Hickman, EAB, accessed 9/23/19; Vozza, Fast Company, 2/28/18; Wang, Quartz, 2/28/18

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