The workplace is experiencing changes that were not even in a radar at the turn of the millennium. According to a recent study by EY, in association with FICCI and NASSCOM on ‘Future of Jobs in India, a 2022 Perspective’, the emerging job scenario would most likely have nearly a tenth of the workforce on jobs that do not exist now; another 37% would find the nature of their jobs - technology, processes and matrices - radically different from what they were originally trained for. That leaves one in two jobholders clinging tenuously to their existing job profiles – of course with the Sword of Damocles hanging precariously over their head. Their jobs might in all likelihood become obsolete too in the future. An explosion in knowledge and the disruptive evolution of technology would continue to change the job scenario.
When millennials join the technology sector today, they no longer look forward to life-long employment. Mobility is accepted as an integral part of work-life. Average tenure of employment has shrunk to five or six years. It is common to find a variety of short to medium duration assignments in the curriculum vitae, especially of technology professionals.
The very concept of a nine to six job is not a sacred mantra today; nor is the employment contract held in high sanctity as a vow to remain together ‘until superannuation doth part us.” It is not employment but employability that is at the core of talent management in the new age workplace.
Among the handful of ideas that have dominated the national discourse in India in the past few years, ‘job’ has arguably been the most topical and worrisome. In the outcry for jobs for the masses, most of us have lost sight of the revolutionary changes unfolding before our eyes. The changes are so sweeping that they impact every aspect of job such as the concept, content, context and contours. ‘Job’ as a, long-term, contractual employer-employee relationship is becoming scarcer. Instead alternative models of employment are increasingly taking centre-stage.
Alternative work profiles include projects and assignments performed by managed services providers, contractors, expert freelancers and gig workers (those engaged and paid for handling specific tasks). The cloud is turning out to be the most resourceful, dynamic and cost-effective marketplace for talent. In the age of designer products and customised services, the time has come for project-specific talent sourcing as well. Talent without strings is the buzz word of the digital work place.
Globally, we are witnessing rapid growth in the number of people in alternative employment. An estimated 53 million people took on gig work in the US in 2018, with 34% of all US workers performing contingent work last year. Total global gig economy spending hit an estimated USD 4.5 trillion in 2018. The share of the US in the global spending on gig work in 2018 was approximately one-third.
Gig workers are the fastest-growing workforce pool in the European Union as well, with their number doubling between 2000 and 2014. Freelancing has been growing faster than overall employment in the developed economies like the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Netherlands in recent years.
India being home to over 1.3 billion people, with the largest pool of millennial workforce, is naturally caught in the global trend of alternative job market. There is a paradigm shift taking place in India on job creation; going forward bulk of the new openings would be in the alternative employment segment. With the tightening of operating cost, increasing the share of knowledge workers in the economy and the changing operating models triggered by digital technologies, structured and long-term employment is losing sheen.
Alternative employment practices are steadily expanding as the key strategy of India Inc. - for turnaround, stabilisation and growth. Nearly three-fourth of all such projects in India were initiated by large corporates and professional services firms in 2018-19. Indian freelancers hold almost 25% share in the global online gig economy. India is already the third largest online labour market.
How does the gig economy function? ‘Gig’ essentially means a short-term or project-based work which is assigned to one or more independent contractors. Such engagement is a sort of ‘win-win’ for the employer, employee and the end-user or customer. It ensures that without being constrained by the depth and breadth of ‘inhouse’ talent, the unique skill set that most suits the project on hand can be engaged. Focus, efficiency, freshness of approach and cost optimisation are the outcome of such a customized approach to talent sourcing and deployment.
There are three pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of the winning strategy on ‘gig’ working. They are the consumers, the gig workers and the technology platform. In the conventional model of employment, the manufacturers and service providers source, train, motivate and reward teams of workers; there are processes, operating procedures and regulations for the engagement of workers productively. The slowness of the sourcing and training process as well as the rigidity of regulations for engaging and exiting the workforce have been a drag on seamless and flexible operations.
The range of alternative employment options provides immense flexibility and strategic options for the key stakeholders. Unshackled from the suffocating supervisory pressures which may hamper creative opportunities at work and with toned-down operational rigidity, gig working allows people to choose assignments that make the most of their talents and reflect their true interests. The employer feels a lot more empowered to go light on overheads and focus on the here-and-now of operational excellence. The business entity can work out strategies and tactics to optimize the bench- strength, risk-proof fulfilment schedules and ensure quality conformance. No wonder, all key stakeholders increasingly find gig working the preferred option to regular employment contract model.
According to a study by Upwork, the leading freelance platform, four out of five online workers felt that gig working allowed them to live their preferred lifestyle. In contrast, only one in two traditional workers expressed satisfaction with the conventional work routines.
The emergence of technology platforms as the fast and flexible marketplace for ready-to-deploy talent has been the gamechanger in the quick scaleup of alternative job model. Technology platform companies have been a major force in the expansion of the gig economy.
In the Indian context, extending gig employment to more sectors of traditional employment and providing the legal framework to operate seamlessly would liberate job markets for low and semi-skilled workforce. Currently, more than 80% of the low and unskilled skilled workers are in the unorganized sector. They are left to the mercy of unscrupulous employers, in spite of innumerable legislative provisions, administrative diktats and an army of regulatory officials meant to protect them. If transparent provisions could be laid down and enforced for formalisation of the variety of alternative employees such as contract, contingent, temporary and ‘gig’ workers, there will be a cascading effect on jobs, liquidity, consumption and economic growth.
Essentially, three action points have to be addressed by the Government.
Firstly, talent pool development should be addressed as top priority. Talent upgrade in the technology and corporate domains happen more as a matter of necessity since in the absence of continuous learning, skill obsolescence and talent redundancy would pose existential threats. The challenge, however, is in developing and updating the employability quotient of the semi-skilled and unskilled workforce.
In fact, the greatest challenge to the global competitiveness of India is the low level of skill-preparedness of our massive workforce. The National Skill Development Mission has been caught in bureaucratic and political quicksand for long and lost its appeal and resilience in spite of substantial outlays and plethora of programs. On war-footing, we need to rejuvenate skill development as a compact and focused national mission. The unwieldiness of the program was perhaps a key reason why it failed to take off except in isolated instances.
Secondly, an efficient and convincing social security net is a prerequisite for establishing a robust alternative employment ecosystem. Without that, the workforce would be caught in the pressures of seasonal fluctuations in the demand for active employment. There should be a contributory funding mechanism for unemployment allowances and medical insurance to buffer the floating workforce from uncertainty.
Thirdly, digitalisation of the end-to-end operating processes for enrolment, engagement, payment, taxation and social security is a critical step in formalisation of the unwieldy alternative employment sector. Digitalisation linked to an Aadhar-enabled platform is a critical success factor for alternative employment model.
Jobs are there aplenty in the economy. If alternative employment is recognized, streamlined and liberated from overhang of bureaucratic controls that plague the formal employment sector, job opportunities will increasingly move from latent and suppressed mode to fulfilment.
May be, we have been looking at the same old face of the coin called ‘employment’ for too long; let us flip the coin and see the enormous potential of the alternate side. Yet another disruption whose time has come!
*Ravi Kumar Pillai is a practising strategy consultant, trainer, coach and mentor based in Trivandrum. He can be contacted at