Gig economy offers flexibility and opportunity

Kevin and Barbara Keir sit at Kevin’s desk in their Wilmington home. The Keirs opted for contract work to escape long commutes and add flexibility to their lives.

By Ken Mammarella
Special to Delaware Business Times

The buzz term is “gig economy,” but the concept has many names: independent contracting, consulting, freelancing, moonlighting, second jobs, contingent and off-the-grid work, on-demand and on-call jobs, side hustles and non-employed.

These terms aren’t synonymous, but they all refer to work that offers greater flexibility, satisfaction and potential at the loss of traditional full-time benefits, like health care, pensions and paid vacations.

“The gig economy is the future,” said Robert Herrera, founder of The Mill, a coworking space in downtown Wilmington. “Gone are the days of ‘Mad Men’-sized offices. Your office is 1 foot by 2 foot — your laptop — and that can be anywhere.”

A third of America’s workers work in the gig economy, Intuit CEO Brad Smith said in a May earnings call. His company owns TurboTax and Emergent Research and closely tracks the market. That number is expected to hit 43 percent by 2020, he said.

On-demand tech gigs, like Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts, are expected to hit 9.2 million by 2021, up from 3.9 million last year, Recode.net concluded from Intuit and Emergent analysis.

“It’s a paradigm shift,” said Nick Matarese, president and creative director of The Barn, a branding agency with offices at 1313 Innovation in downtown Wilmington. “It’s a transitional period for the American economy” from corporate economy to the gig economy.

For the first time in more than a decade, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics is this year collecting data on contingent workers, independent contractors and other slices of the sector. While the federal government crunches the numbers on jobs that didn’t exist a few years ago, many Delawareans have forged ahead and embraced the gig economy.

Time and flexibility 

Barbara and Kevin Keir, who live near Wilmington, got to gig work in different ways. Barbara stopped her full-time career as a consultant registered dietitian to raise their children, and when she decided eight years ago to return to the working world, she wanted to avoid the “constant uncertainty” that comes from corporate mergers and restructuring. She now devotes eight to 10 hours a week doing the same work as a contractor for the Stonegates and Little Sisters of Poor retirement facilities.

“I like the independence of choosing my own accounts and the people to work with,” Barbara said. “I enjoy being the one with the ultimate decision on my destiny.”

Kevin used to work for DuPont as a data archiving specialist, but his job moved to CSC when DuPont spun off its information technology unit. The job required a killer commute (more than two hours daily) and uncertainty about the future of the contract. “I couldn’t take it,” Kevin said.

So at the end of 2015, he took an early partial retirement and got his own contract doing the same work. He’s much happier with commute that’s half the length and the scheduling flexibility. “One of the things I like about the gig economy is that if I want a month off, I can take it,” he said. His contract has been renewed several times, and he’s surprisingly unflustered about not knowing if it will continue. “It doesn’t worry me. It should, but I get six or seven job offers a year with LinkedIn.” It should be acknowledged that some would entail even longer commutes.

Side gigs

Greg Schauer got into his side gig as a fiction editor by being surrounded by books (he owns Between Books 2.0 in Claymont) and regularly being asked to review customers’ manuscripts. “So I learned the trade,” said Schauer, a store owner since he turned 18.

Greg Schauer owns a bookshop in Claymont and edits fiction on the side.

A plus: “There’s a job in bringing something creative into the world. It’s a little bit of cheerleading and a little of mentoring, too.” A minus: “It’s the same as any freelancer. The money’s sporadic. I’m always wondering where the next job is coming from.”

Schauer earns editing income by that sporadic freelance and by contract for eSpec Books, an electronic speculative fiction publisher where he has some equity.

A 2011 episode of “Auction Kings” led North Wilmington residents Ed and Diane Farrell, an electronics technician and retired real estate saleswoman, into selling vintage items online. They went to their first auction and were hooked, so much that they have more than 2,000 items listed today.

Ed earlier sold coins and patio furniture, but now anything’s game.

“It’s become a lot more work-intensive, but it’s still fun,” he said, referring in the latter partly to the camaraderie of other dealers they’ve met. For the former, he figures Diane works full time to research, photograph, describe, catalog, store, package and ship items — and he pitches in, too. He’s looking toward retirement at his traditional job, and this “might even become more full time.”

Startups

Pauline Rubin started First Ascent Design 2½ years ago after working full time for two marketing companies and freelancing on the side. Her startup employs her husband, John Himics, as a part-timer and also benefits from connections through Start It Up Delaware and The Mill.

She emphasized flexibility in why she gave up “the comfort and security of the paycheck.” That flexibility includes scheduling, project choices, client relationships and development of her skill sets (she does graphic design, web work and social media).

“I’ve grown a lot more working by myself,” she said of her skills, and they’re “transferrable skills that I wouldn’t have gotten” through her corporate jobs. She pays it forward by sharing that wisdom in teaching at Girl Develop It (a nonprofit encouraging women in software careers) and the University of Delaware. She has the time to teach, she notes, because she has the flexibility about her own schedule.

Matarese started The Barn six years ago to offer graphics and sport expertise. Agency employment — by gigs, of course — has hit as high as 13 and as low as four for the work. He said that going for gigs also is “a safe way to start a business and a stepping stone into being your own boss.”

Kriss and Barba had corporate jobs (agricultural research at DuPont and web development at Sony) but embraced the gig mindset to found Coakt, a platform for startups to connect with resources. They’re still building the site and app, and they’re also working on a book and podcasts to explain the trend. This summer they’ll start accepting profiles from entrepreneurs to “showcase their ideas, put out calls for resources, tokenize their shares and offer digital equity agreements” and others to invest hard or soft assets.

“You’re not just one thing, and that gets lost in traditional employment. In the gig economy, you’re using all your skill sets,” said Barba, who notched more than a decade of freelance experience after Sony. He believes that “money will take a back seat to your values” in the gig economy.

‘Why would I be loyal to a big company?’

This new economy is not without its supporters in Dover.

“As the landscape of Delaware’s economy changes, Delaware continues to evolve and adapt with it, said Cerron Cade, acting director of the Delaware Economic Development Office. “Delaware will continue to champion entrepreneurs and innovation through a variety of programs including support for coworking spaces like The Mill and 1313 Innovation, as well as startup incubators such as DTP@STAR and the new Delaware Innovation Space. We anticipate that the need for these services will continue to grow as more entrepreneurs begin to call Delaware home.”

Herrera is another proponent of the gig economy. He left his well-paying job as an architect to create The Mill.

“Why would I be loyal to a big company?” he asked, referring to watching workers from an earlier generation downsized out of their careers. That included both family friends and colleagues at Perkins Eastman, Manhattan’s largest architectural firm. “There are not too many people these days captured by that psychology. And there’s still this resentment to it.”

He is concerned that Delaware’s political and business leaders don’t get how the gig economy has taken hold and is growing. “They need to recognize it’s a thing” and do things to nurture it, he said, such as “building a cool environment” that attracts driven workers.

“We’re moving to a project-based economy about getting things done, rather than clocking in 9 to 5 and just talking about getting things done,” he said, noting that 95 percent of the tasks needed to establish The Mill are going to people he has contracted.

Herrera is very comfortable giving up corporate benefits. “The security is in myself, my skills and my personal brand,” he said.

 

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