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Winter 2018-19

This feature article ran in the member magazine of It was co-written by SkillSurvey’s Jake Burke and Babson College’s Theresa Holland. A synopsis appears below and the full pdf of the article can be downloaded here:

Embracing the Gig Economy in Higher Ed

Borrowed from the music industry, “gig” applies to all sorts of flexible or contingent employment. Few occupations have seen as steep an increase in contingent labor as teaching in higher education. “Gig economy” refers to this new model where much of the workforce no longer holds a traditional “job” with a long-term connection to a single institution or business. Instead, they work “gigs,” where they are employed for a specific task, project or role or for a defined time.

A study by McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 20 percent to 30 percent of the working-age population engages in some form of short-term, task-based or autonomous work — and that figure is estimated to grow to 40 percent by 2020. While some are working independently by necessity, many actively choose to engage in the gig economy.

Why Higher Ed Is Embracing Gig Employment

Why is gig work so appealing to higher ed? There are a few reasons:

  • By using freelance talent, institutions can find individuals with unique qualifications who might otherwise not be able to commit to a full-time or in-person position.
  • Hiring part-timers gives institutions more flexibility, allowing them to more precisely match faculty to the demand for classes as well as hire or let go part-time workers in response to rising or declining enrollment.
  • Hiring gig workers can save institutions money, with cost savings realized in salary and benefits.

Why Workers Choose Part-Time Work

According to a recent study Randstad, 74 percent of workers surveyed choose agile working arrangements or find them a better fit for their lifestyle. Many Americans are seeking greater autonomy and flexibility in their careers than they can find in the traditional 9-to-5 model. Many people are seeking a greater work/life balance. New generations are bringing new attitudes to the workplace — there are changing ideas around career growth, job loyalty and what makes work meaningful. Particularly as it relates to higher education, many who want to teach are going the adjunct route because it can be difficult to land a tenure-track position in a tight labor market.

Attracting and Hiring the Best Gig Workers

One way many organizations are attracting quality gig workers is to offer employment packages tailored specifically to this population, including:

  • Voluntary benefits that can allow part-time workers to take advantage of special pricing and underwriting concessions offered to other employees.
  • Pay incentives and opportunities for professional development and training.
  • Flexible working and telecommuting options (more than half of those who do work part-time cite greater control over their schedule as a driving factor).
  • Allowing part-time employees to accrue vacation time at an appropriate rate.
  • Tuition assistance — companies like AT&T, Amazon and UPS offer their part-time employees tuition assistance, and this trend is beginning to catch on in higher education as well.
  • Office space for those working on campus and access to resources and campus facilities.

When hiring part-time employees for professional and adjunct faculty positions, it’s important to hire candidates with demonstrated experience. There are unique skill sets that can be indicative of success in part-time or remote positions. Some key soft skills highlighted by FlexJobs include:

  • Social or emotional intelligence – being able to negotiate, navigate and thrive in a complex, connected world.
  • Cross-cultural competency – interaction among workers representing many beliefs, cultures, languages, geographies and customs.
  • Cognitive load management – the ability to handle and prioritize tasks and systems based on available data and make smart choices on when and how to act for the good of the organization.

How do you determine if part-time candidates have these skills? One way is by asking the right questions of references. Babson College has historically conducted reference checks by phone, but this avenue wasn’t yielding much useful information about candidates and was incredibly time consuming. So the college rethought its process. Babson now requires all job candidates to submit the names and contact information of five references. These references are sent a job-specific electronic survey with about 25 questions, the answers to which help the selection committee and/or hiring manager quickly assess the candidate’s soft skills. Click here to see more about how the SkillSurvey reference checking process works.

Retaining and Engaging Gig Workers

Once you have hired part-time employees, perhaps the most difficult step is retaining them. The first step in successful retention is good onboarding. It’s important to recognize that the onboarding needs of part-time employees are different than those of full-time staff. Remember, they may be on the job only half the time you are, so they’ll have half as much time to absorb new content. Additionally, fostering and growing a community among your part-time employees will go a long way toward keeping them around and avoiding costly turnover. Include them in rewards programs, celebrations and employee feedback programs.

When possible, give part-timers increasing responsibility in the workplace. If they have ownership over what they are working on, they will be more likely to stay. Focus on what their career goals are and, as appropriate, assign them tasks that will help them develop the skills they need and want.

Treat them equally. Don’t treat gig workers like second-class citizens because they’re part-time.

It’s also important to track key performance indicators, including turnover rates, cost of turnover, promotion rates and participation in part-time benefits. Studying this data will help you gauge the effectiveness of your part-time employee retention efforts.

Gig Workers Are Here to Stay

The number of adjunct faculty continues to grow as institutions struggle to balance the budget, but turnover in these positions is also impacting the bottom line. Instead of treating part-time employees as an afterthought or a subset of the campus workforce, colleges and universities are better served when they invest time, resources and energy in attracting, retaining and engaging the best “gig” talent.

Don’t be afraid to embrace the gig economy. When you take the time to do it right, the benefits are many.

About the authors: Theresa Holland is manager of talent acquisition at Babson College. Jake Burke is director of sales – higher education at SkillSurvey. They will be presenting a session on the gig economy in higher ed at CUPA-HR’s 2019 Spring Conference in Washington, D.C.