Tag Archives: independent contractors

Hollywood and the Future of Work

Stephen Kasriel the CEO of Upwork just wrote an article in Fast Company called "Why the Future of Work will Look a lot like Hollywood."   I agree wholeheartedly and in fact wrote a similar piece years ago on the movie model. I pointed out that It is no surprise, that  in the business analog, the first players  to become independent were the stars,  just like in the movie model. Back in 1988  ( before the internet...ouch!) it took me no time to build up a strong network of consultants numbering in the 1000s.  Independent expertise of the most credentialed sort  has been around for decades, well before the advent of what people typically think of as the gig economy,  i.e. the uber drivers or free-lance workers on the  Upwork platform. It's the stars, the highly accomplished independent consultants and interim managers,  who wanted to to take control of their careers and make choices about how they would use their talents.

 

But there are two salient  but potentially related differences  between the movie world and the high end of the gig economy.  The first is that no one seems to take issue with the movie model.  The fact that talents of all sorts, from cinematographers to actors to musicians, come together for a one year gig  to make a movie and then disband is not derided as a dangerous model. This gig economy is accepted for what it is - the best way to complete a large scale cinematic project. However the other key difference is the fact that  Hollywood is a land of unions. The  writers, composers, actors and directors are all in a union or guild.  Additionally, the agents who represent them are also union members.  Is it this labor affiliation that spares the movie model from criticism?

Just today, the AFL CIO declared that gig workers should be employees.  They implied but did not suggest outright that therefore they should be union employees.

I can't speak to the low level roles in the gig economy, but I can speak to those who represent the most skilled, the consultants who have gone independent by choice.  One once told me she never wanted to be an employee ever again.  I will extrapolate that she wouldn't want a union card either...

 

A Gig Economy Downside No one Mentions

I saw a blog post today from DCR Workforce announcing that there will finally be a "reckoning " of the gig economy.  http://blog.dcrworkforce.com/finally-official-reckoning-gig-economy Like most people who question the value of the gig economy, the author's concerns were about the  lack of a safety net for the workers.  There was also apparent relief that perhaps, in this reckoning, we would also "weed out cases where employees are being misclassified as independent contractors by businesses."  

I too think it would be valuable to have such an accounting  for what is becoming an ever-growing proportion of the labor force.   I too recognize that may of these workers are not doing gigs by choice but out of necessity.

That said,though, so many pundits and economists often overlook the fact that for so many the further maturation of this marketplace is not pernicious but empowering.  Many professionals have self selected into this gig economy labor force, because they can; they have the expertise that will command a market rate that will support their lifestyle.  And now, with the increasing sophistication of search algorithms, the ability to parlay that expertise to the market place is so much  more efficient.

It is not a free market, though, because legal obstacles especially in employment law around independent contractors and employees frustrate the free flow of talent. Yes, some players may inappropriately classify workers, but the flip side is true as well. Many companies are so worried about the employee independent contractor issue, that they refuse to engage anyone who is paid on a 1099, the tax form used to report non wage income.  It is not illegal to work on a 1099 basis, yet many consultants have been forced to change the way they do business to deal with this heightened risk profile. I should know, in 1992, I started a firm, Collabrus,  to employ consultants  for the duration of a consulting project, if  the nature of the work or a risk averse client required it. Similarly, many senior level consultants are forced to work through master vendor arrangements, where they become the employee of someone in order to complete a consulting project.

So the downside that many never seem to mention, for what is albeit the upper end of the gig economy labor pool,  are the marketplace inefficiencies  that institutionalize risk and increase costs to practitioners  who are forced to operate differently with  different clients.

So my question is this --  when the reckoning of the gig economy is done, will they also identify those workers who were misclassified as a temporary employee, when they could have operated as a 1099?  It seems only fair.

The Freelance Marketplace Platform Race

Now that I have embarked on my research for the next book on the high-end of the on demand expertise marketplace, I am having a lot of deja vu moments.  Certainly, there is the fact, that though I have been gone from my old firm for several years, things have not changed that much. Tremendous, credentialed  expertise of just about any type is available on demand. Companies continue to avail themselves of this resource in new ways, and new competitors continue to arrive touting different points of differentiation.

It is this last area where the deja vu comes in, because the new platform competitors appear to be cropping up everywhere.  My twitter feed is cluttered with entreaties from one firm to beta test a new platform that "won't suck." (I couldn't help but wonder if they shouldn't get a free

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The Pets.com sock puppet

lance copy writer to come up with a better ask...) Quite frankly, I am reminded a bit of the frothy days of the internet when pets .com  became the 4th ( yes 4th) online pet supply store.  Despite the fact that dog food is not a high value shipping product, the firm had an amazing IPO valuing it at close to $100 million  in 2000 and was out of business 9 months later.

 

I am not suggesting that the online freelance marketplaces are headed for the same fate.  Indeed, I think technology is creating the platform to enable a market to be made in talent, in the true economic sense of the word market. I look forward to better understanding these business models to see how differentiated they really are.  Certainly, some are defined by the type of talent they seek to attract; the sites working with copy writer won't appeal to CFO's, but dancers will do... Interestingly, one in the UK, combines a totally automated service with consultant mixers, so freelancers can gather together.   I can't help but wonder if freelancers will subscribe to all that operate in their area of expertise, or if they will  choose just one.  If it were me, I'd definitely go for the one with the mixers...I am a sucker for cocktails...

 

 

The “Gig Economy” and the employment data problem

A recent news item little noticed apart from gig economy wonks like me was the fact that  the government is planning to get data on how many workers actually populate the "gig economy."  Labor Secretary, Thomas Perez, announced at the end of January that the department would team up with the Census Bureau and  restore the Contingent Worker's Supplement  as part of the May 2017 Current Population Survey.

It is being restored because in 2005, in the infinite wisdom of governmental agencies, the decision was made to discontinue data collection in this area. The Supplement had only been published 5 times and in fairness, it had its share of critics.  A major failing, was the fact that  it aggregated all contingent work arrangements, from  senior management consultants to security guards to cab drivers.  As such, drawing conclusions about income trends, potential wage and hour infractions or economic security was difficult.  Similarly, no attempt was made to try reconcile the differences between the self employed - a broad category which  consultants, architects and dry cleaners - and 1099 tax filers.

Now that the gig economy appears to be fundamentally redesigning work and income structures in the US economy, the Labor Department  wants to try to get a handle on the phenomenon in large part to better inform policy decisions. They do acknowledge that it will be difficult, since just the definition of what qualifies as contingent work is controversial. Additionally, one would hope that they will make strides to refine the data to be able to draw more meaningful conclusions.    That said, we should not get too excited, since this  there won't be data until early 2018 at best.

What is ironic to me, as someone who has been involved in the  high-end of the contingent work force for nearly 30 years,especially now in this political season is the constant emphasis on jobs creation as a metric of economic success.  When you consider 53 million people, according to The Solo Project, have chosen to define  themselves as  independent consultants , free agents or free lancers, the magnitude of the data problem becomes apparent.  These people do not want traditional jobs. What labor statistics are capturing this? Lets hope Perez can fix the data problems inherent in the Contingent Workforce Supplement, because the world of work is being redefined quickly and the government needs to catch up.

Expertise 15 years later

Expertise and the Independent Consultant

I recently reread my book, A New Brand of Expertise, published in 2001. It was a book about, as the tag line said, how ” free agents, independent consultants and interim managers are transforming the world of work.”

bookIt was an odd experience, after all of these years to read the words. Perhaps more prolific authors are used to it, but for me it was very strange. I was surprised at the passages I didn’t recall at all, (really, I wrote that?) including some rather remarkable anecdotes. I had to laugh at the few (and luckily there were only a few) references that didn’t hold up at all; for example, my advice to new consultants to build a personal brand offered Martha Stewart as the role model. Obviously this was written before her prison sentence. My opening chapter referenced the Donna Reed show, because her husband, ” the company man” was becoming an anachronism. My guess is there isn’t a millennial around who could relate to that TV reference. (Oops, I am dating myself, but I only saw the show in reruns as a very young child…)

What dismayed me was one aspect of the forecast I made 15 years ago about what would happen to this nascent independent marketplace in the years ahead. I had suggested that on the horizon there could be some simplification of the legal ambiguity that was a threat to the dynamic growth of an independent talent market. I offered hope that U.S. 344, the Independent Contractor Simplification Act, authored by then Senator Kit Bond of Missouri would pass. I was overly optimistic. Not only did it not pass, it never made it to the floor — It died in committee the following year.

And now, the independent contractor issue is in the limelight again as the “gig ” economy has been caught up in the ambiguous regulatory environment, as firms like Uber, Handy and Instacart try to maneuver in the anachronistic definition of employment today. . In the meantime, the free agent and interim management part of the gig economy has only continued to grow. Perhaps the sharing economy, led by the Uber driver lawsuit, will help bring much needed clarity to this issue. Isn’t it about time?

David Bowie Bonds and the Future of Work

David-BowieDavid Bowie was an innovator of so many things including  in 1997 the first securitization of music royalties which came to be known as David Bowie bonds.  In my book, A New Brand of Expertise  published 15 years ago, I posited that Bowie was the first to create a human capital bond, since he was in essence creating a security from the creative works of a brilliant mind — his own.  In my final chapter discussing the future of work, I asked this question: Why couldn’t there be similar bonds created in the human capital marketplace, synthetic instruments which could pool the revenue streams of thousands of the top independent consultants, protecting against down time, slow periods or any other cash flow disruption? A consultant bond, I argued, would place a value on knowledge much as companies value their intellectual property assets.

Now fast forward 15 years, the Bowie bonds, made David a cool $50 million but were not such a windfall for his investors given the industry economic disruption caused by the onset of music streaming.  For more on this see http://money.cnn.com/2016/01/11/media/bowie-bonds-royalties/.

Although the music royalty bond notion may have fallen from favor, the consultant bond has more legs than when I originally described it.  The weaknesses to my early argument, to be completely candid, was in the issuer.  I suggested that the consultants collectively would be the issuer.  Although I knew that was an unwieldy structure, it was thought provoking when discussing the future of work.  What is different now, though is the human cloud.

Whereas my firm, M Squared,  was one of the first to provide on demand expertise 28 years ago, now there are all sorts of intermediaries parsing work into everything from looking up addresses to  writing code to managing corporate operations.  These firms  source, place and pay their resources in the cloud, and many rank them there as well.  So my year 2000 notion of taking the top 500 consultants in an area was aspirational, but now there  could be ways to do it through the yelp like data being collected on consulting purveyors.  Human cloud companies could be the issuers.  Investors would be buying into the knowledge and talent market, with prices fluctuating with demand and supply.

I know it still sounds a bit far fetched.  But in the words of the inimitable Davide Bowie,

“Turn and face the strange, ch – ch- changes.”

 

Independent Contractors and the Bubonic Plague

Katy Steinmetz of Time Magazine had a great piece this week summarizing a joint Aspen Institute /Time study on the future of the gig economy. http://time.com/4169532/sharing-economy-poll/?xid=tcoshare  She discussed what may be the first attempt to quantify how many Americans are participating in the various aspects of the sharing world, from shared car services, to rented rooms, to odd jobs, as either a buyer or seller.  As you may imagine, the numbers are fairly staggering, with more than 44% of Americans taking part.

She also gets into the implications of the employment status of those who offer services.  In most cases they are classified as independent contractors (ICs)  rather than employees.  ICs, of course are not subject to withholding taxes and ineligible for benefits typically accorded employees.  Ride sharing giant,  Uber, is facing a class action lawsuit, where drivers are claiming they should be employees not ICs, an action now scheduled for June of 2016.

The IC versus employee  issue is a murky one and Steinmetz does a good job explaining the accurate and curious fact that there is no one legal definition of an employee. The IRS has 20 points which define employment status, but the primary factor comes down to who directs and controls the work.  That subjective framework is why the subject is fraught with abuse from both sides of the transaction.

Later in  a brief comment, she explains that the ambiguity of this body of law is inherent in its origins in 18th century England.  She didn’t quite get that one right…it was a bit earlier.

Our current employment structures are based on  the Master Servant body of English Law which is actually from the 14th century. As the bubonic plague, also called the Black Death, ravaged England, there was a need to identify who was the master of a particular area and who was the servant — hence the name.

Although the Uber case and others in the sharing economy have put the IC vs. employee question in the forefront, it has been an issue for years. Issues can create opportunities; companies like Collabrus Inc., which I founded, as well as others like MBO Partners, have created business models to eliminate the ambiguity inherent in the misclassification of workers.

Issues also create investigations. In the mid 90’s, I testified about the problem at hearings in Sacramento. At the time , the state of California was ardently pursuing anyone who was paid with a 1099 (an IC) versus a W2 (an employee), claiming that those receiving 1099s were just trying to skirt taxes. I explained there in the new world of just in time talent, old employment designations  and the social contract that goes along with it  were no longer relevant.  I ended my remarks pointing out that the bubonic plague ended a long time ago, so maybe it was time to update our regulations,

The wonderful State Senator, Milton Marks , of San Francisco, who served in the California senate for more than 30 years at that point chimed in and said, “She is absolutely right .  I know because I am so old, I was there  in the Middle Ages.”

I have to smile when I think of that hearing.  I also have to agree with my original assertion, it is time to rethink our employment law structures as the gig economy grows. IC status shouldn’t have anything to do with the bubonic plague, rather it should have to do with empowering individual business pursuits.

1099 Questions about the gig economy

Professor Laura Tyson of the Haas Business School published a great piece  last week about the challenges of the gig economy.https://agenda.weforum.org/2015/11/how-can-we-protect-workers-in-the-gig-economy/

She focused on digital labor platforms, noted that nearly 400 million people have posted resumes on Linked In The problem, and of course there always is one, is that as this contingent workforce has grown through the likes of Uber, Taskrabbit and Upwork, employment has not, since most of the work is done on an independent contractor basis. As such,these individuals are  paid on a 1099 not a W2, and separated from the employment based benefits which provide the proverbial safety net via health insurances and retirement programs. She goes on to discuss the policy implications as well as the interesting coalitions being formed around this issue.

Although Professor Tyson discussed the independent contractor (IC) issue as a relatively new phenomenon, it is not. Independent consultants, and other professionals like  real estate agents  have faced this issue for decades.  For many, creating the answer to the safety net issue was part of the calculus of starting their independent business in the first place. These individuals were making a deliberate choice to create an independent, professional  lifestyle , another point that often gets lost in the IC debate.

From my research several years ago ( which clearly needs to be updated) a significant minority of ICs were able to secure benefits through a spouse.  Further proof of that is that when we set up benefits programs for ICs the greatest interest was in tax deferred income and retirement products.  Granted, the sample we were targeting included the highest paid ICs, so they would have had arguably the greatest economic flexibility.  In the last 5-10 years, the IC ranks, thanks to the new digital platforms,  have grown to  include lower wage workers.

Conversely, according to a recent article in the Economist, the data does not support amazing growth in this IC economy,  with the caveat that labor statistics are egregiously poor in both the UK and US .  (Indeed, the US government discontinued the tracking of contingent workers  in 2005 by eliminating the Contingent Work Supplement . Senator Mark Warner  has requested  that  the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the IRS reinstate it.  ) In a 10/23 article, the author, Laura Gardiner,  notes that the number of self employed workers in the US is actually falling and the proportion of full time workers  in both countries has not decreased. Freelancers represent only 2% of the workforce in Britain.

Gardiner goes on to suggest that this non intuitive lack of growth may be the result not of  bad statistics but of improper definitions.  The gig economy, also the sharing economy, includes the 1099 worker but also encompasses the AirBnB hosts, for example, who don’t see that extra income from renting a room  as  job related. This is true for many participants in the sharing economy, suggesting that the true size of the current market activity may be significantly understated.    In some cases the income may go unreported but in most it will just appear as 1099 income. As such, that may be the better metric to track.

The  Bay Area Council Economic Institute did just that.  It compared the growth in the number of  1099s  issued ( not the dollar value)  with the number of W2 returns by year and indexed for inflation.  Although 1099s tended to peak  and then retract after recessions, as demonstrated in 1990, 2001 and 2007 the pattern has changed.  Since the financial crisis and attendant recession in 2009, 1099s issued has continued to rise, while W2s have shown greater variability. 

By 2025, Tyson suggests the gig economy will approach $2.7 trillion in global GDP. Hopefully by then we will have a better understanding of how the marketplace functions,  and a much better handle the policy infrastructure needed to support it to ensure the independence and flexibility it affords can be sustained.

 

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