In Summary

  • Opinion piece for The Australian by Director of the Centre for the New Workforce, Dr Sean Gallagher

As part of his call for business to join “Team Australia’’ during the coronavirus-induced economic crisis, Scott Morrison appealed to industry leaders to “take the opportu­nity to invest in the skills of your workforce”.

Companies and organisations across Australia are dealing with an unprecedented and serious impact­ on their ability to do work. Thousands of employees are working at reduced levels, countless others are being let go, while budgets for traditional contractors and consultants are being slashed. The supply chain of talent on which businesses rely is being severely­ disrupted.

Once the economic crisis begins­ to abate, businesses and industr­y will face a new challenge: how to quickly and flexibly rebuild their workforce, with the skills and expertise they need for the new opportunities in a transformed economy.

Gig and freelance workers are well placed as a significant part of this solution. And despite facing its own coronavirus-related crisis, the tertiary education sector has a unique opportunity to play a ­leadership role by developing the next wave of specialist gig and freelance workers.

The gig and freelance economy currently presents a number of hurdles to different stakeholders. For instance, there are industrial relations and workflow issues for companies, stigma and un­certainty for workers, and an un­familiari­ty for tertiary education providers in helping society to adjust­ to these new forms of work. The virus-induced crisis, while obviou­sly terrible, presents an opportunity to overcome these hurdle­s and align incentives.

At the moment, 1.2 million Aust­ralian workers are doing digita­l platform work in the gig and freelance economy. Many more have tried out this type of work. Nearly one in four working Australians (23.1 per cent) say they have had experience, at some time in their career, in such roles.

Because of the growing importance of these jobs, Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for the New Workforce set out to gather data about this sector. We saw the need to better understand how work is changing, and how our education system should change, so that it more effectively serves the needs of today’s workforce and today’s employers.

In late November last year, 1060 working Australians aged from 18 to over 65 years of age (in a nationally representative sample across the economy) were surveyed. (Owing to overlapping definitions of gig work and freelance work, respondents were not asked to distinguish between the two).

We know that workers in the gig and freelance economy do many types of work. They find gigs, or small tasks, through online marketplaces operating on digital platforms such as Uber and Airtasker. More specialised tasks and projects, which are often longer jobs, are advertised on other digital platforms such as and Expert360.

The survey found that nearly nine in every 10 freelance and gig workers (87 per cent) have tertiary qualifications — 69 per cent of them university-educated and 18 per cent with a vocational educa­tion qualification.

And of the millennials (defined in this study as 18-34-year-olds) who have worked in the gig and freelance sector, 68 per cent are university-educated, and 14 per cent have vocational education. Universities, TAFEs and vocational colleges have a tremendous opportu­nity to begin preparing “job-ready graduates” for these new forms of work, especially in these times of coronavirus.

According to Ben Hamer, PwC’s future of work lead and CNeW adjunct, the importance of millennials in transforming work cannot be overstated. “Already the largest demographic in the workforce, millennials will represent up to 75 per cent of all Australian workers by 2025,” he said.

When asked “would you consider doing gig work or freelancing in the future?”, 31 per cent of all university-educated millennials said they would, as did 30 per cent of vocational-educate­d m­­illen­nials. This is a helpful lead indic­ator suggesting the size of the gig and freelance economy is set to significantly grow in Australia as this demographic wave of younger-genera­tion workers sweeps across the economy.

What does a typical digital-platform worker look like? How much do they earn, in what industries do they work, and what kind of work do they do? Here is the prevalence of gig and freelance workers within these demograph­ics, ranked according to categories with the highest proportion:

  • Household income: earning $50,000-$99,000 (27 per cent), more than $150,000 (26 per cent), less than $50,000 (25 per cent).
  • Economic sector: knowledge sec­tor, such as information, media, financial services (37 per cent); asset sector, such as mining, utilities, construction (29 per cent); service sector, such as health, transport, education, retail (20 per cent).
  • Job function: senior management (38 per cent), self-employed business owners (35 per cent), professiona­l/technical workers (25 per cent), clerical or administrative workers (24 per cent).

Some likely personas of gig and freelance workers are: the supply chain expert freelancing for a management consultant; the tradesperson doing minor construc­tion gigs; the digital media specialist analysing data for companies across Australia; the cyber-security technical worker performing risk assessments for small businesses; the disability services graduate offering support to NDIS clients.

As future-of-work strategist and CNeW adjunct Heather Mc­Gowan says, “work is being disconnected from jobs, and work and jobs are being disconnected from companies by digital platforms”. This future of work is ­already here but we haven’t engaged with it in a serious manner.

The coronavirus crisis presents a unique opportunity to experiment with new forms of work — witness the seismic shift to working from home. Tertiary education needs to give students skills-­relevant experiential learning opportunitie­s on digital platforms, no matter their area of study. It is timely for institutions themselves to begin building expertise and experie­nce in these areas.

So how do tertiary institutions engage? All universities, TAFEs and VET colleges recognise the value of work-integrated learning. This should now be expanded. “Digital platform work-integrated learning” promises to be a win-win-win-win for students, tertiary education institutions, digital platform providers and employers.

The preliminary report Digital Platform Work in Australia, commissioned by the Victorian government, examines this issue. The most popular digital platforms requirin­g specialist skills, such as Airtasker, Freelancer, Upwork, Expert360, Fiverr, 99designs and Guru, should join with tertiary providers to begin co-designing work experience opportunities on digital platforms, working with a selection of employers willing to trial new approaches to work experien­ce. There will be many formulas for success but all should consider learning outcomes, business­ skills, accreditation, pay, supervision, quality assurance, and managing risks.

There are many advantages for students in this type of skills-­relevant, digital-platform, work-­integrated learning. and the case for tertiary institutions across Australia to provide students with the opportunity to pursue work experience through digital platforms will only get stronger.

Not only do institutions have an obligation to ensure their student­s are future-ready, but it is also a strategic opportunity for them to engage in a fast-moving area of the future of work.

Dr Sean Gallagher is Director of Swinburne’s Centre for the New Workforce. This opinion piece was originally published in The Australian.