Training Challenges in Today’s “Gig Economy”

A few weeks ago, as I stood on a train platform coming back from a Fourth of July barbecue, a friend complained to me about how tired she was of contract work. Until 2008, she was a full-time employee with health benefits, vacation time, and the opportunity for contributing to a 401k plan. Since then, she’s jumped from one contract job to another. She’s stayed at some of the jobs for as long as a year-and-a-half, but she’s never been able to transition back to full-time, permanent employment.

An article in The New York Times, Growth in the ‘Gig Economy’ Fuels Work Force Anxieties, a couple weeks ago, highlighted the anxieties many candidates for positions at your company feel. My friend yearned for the days when companies either wanted you full-time with benefits or they didn’t want you at all. On the one hand, it’s nice (even a point of survival) that companies want to give people work at all, but, on the other hand, it puts job seekers in a difficult position. Do you hold out and wait for a permanent position, do you accept a temporary position while keeping your eyes open for something permanent, or do you simply permanently freelance—a chronic condition an old acquaintance of mine called “perma-lance”?

It’s easy for companies to feel secure and happy with this arrangement—you get the work you need to get done, with no further obligation to workers than to pay them for the limited time needed to complete the assignment, with no expectation that they will receive benefits from you. However, this may be a false sense of security if you don’t know how to optimize your temporary staff, and offset the downsides to your temporary workforce.

The financial side of the equation can be positive, but the downsides are huge. For one thing, the financial advantages may not be as great as you think. Whenever a new project arises, you have to start all over again, putting time and money into finding and training a new employee. The more temporary employees you have, the more you’re constantly training and introducing new people into your workforce. This constant churn not only is aggravating, it also creates disruptions for the full-time, salaried, benefit-bestowed employees.

In addition, you have to consider the psyche and commitment of your temporary employees. They know you’re not invested in them beyond the project they’re working on, so why should they care much about the assignment they’ve been given? I know all about the mindset of a temporary employee because I spent the summer of 2010 as a contract worker myself. I was tremendously grateful for the good income I enjoyed between full-time, permanent positions, but I can’t say I cared that much about the work I was doing, or the organization I worked for. On top of that, I was constantly looking for something else (which, luckily, I found), so in the end, I didn’t even fulfill my full contract. I left about a month short of what I had agreed to. My father, who has always been self-employed, questioned for a minute the honor of me leaving before fulfilling my full contract, but then I reminded him that they were going to get rid of me most likely in a month, and that if I didn’t find something soon, I was going to be left with no additional money coming in. He agreed then that I basically had no choice, but to leave as soon as possible.

How much luck does your organization have getting temporary employees to fulfill their contracts? Are there tips you could pass along to make it easier and more likely for temporary employees to stay with you for the period of time they agreed to?

Another challenge for companies with temporary employees is finding an efficient way to train these people. The training challenge for temporary employees is different from the challenge of training long-term, permanent employees. For one thing, you don’t have as much time. With a permanent employee, learning and development can be thought of as a plan that may take years to accomplish, with learning maps created, multiple reviews, and leisurely discussions between employee and manager about what’s working and what isn’t, and what the employee likes and doesn’t like. With a temporary employee, who’s only going to be there for a few months, how much time is reasonable to spend training him or her? At some point, you have to wonder if you’re facing the funny situation of employees who are finally fully trained and fully efficient just as the project ends and they’re about to leave.

If you’re going to have many temporary employees, do you think a special arm of your learning and development department, especially devoted to the needs of these temporary workers, would be a good idea?

Last, there’s a comfort issue in the interpersonal relations between temporary and permanent employees. The situation reminds me of that discomfort you can feel when someone you don’t know that well is staying in your home. You feel shy about doing the things you usually would do without thinking in your own home. I think it may be the same in the office environment. A comfort level develops with people you work next to for years side-by-side, so that you can focus on your work and communicate seamlessly. When you look across the cubicle aisle, and there’s a stranger sitting there, it takes a while to get your communication footing, so that you and the new person are able to fully understand each other without having to think hard about how you’re going to word everything, and how you are going to approach him or her.

A temporary workforce offers some financial benefits to an organization, and sometimes is even a financial necessity, but there’s a cost to pay for filling your office with a constant stream of strangers.

How do you use temporary employees in your company, and how can Learning and Development professionals help optimize these workers, while limiting the disruptions to the rest of the organization?


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