Comment Blog 18 July, 2017

Employment services should help people into the gig economy

Last week, Matthew Taylor’s review of modern employment practices offered a more positive account of the gig economy than many expected, hailing the freedom it offers workers relative to other arrangements. Reform’s latest report echoes this, and makes recommendations for how government should help people into the gig economy.

Older and disabled people are explored as potential winners from recent growth in flexible work. Both groups are significantly less likely than average to be economically active, and many face significant work barriers. Around half of all 50-64 year olds manage at least one long-term health condition. Of the 3 million in this age group that are economically inactive, around 12 per cent spend over 20 hours per week looking after a sick, disabled or elderly person.

Greater work flexibility could help them to enter the labour market. In a survey of disability benefit claimants, many indicated that “flexible work, working from home [and] working less than 16 hours per week” would help them sustain employment. A review of the Work Capability Assessment for sickness benefits also found half of those deemed ‘fit for work’ require flexible work hours.

Whilst some areas of the gig economy may not suit these jobseekers, platforms are emerging in a wide range of sectors. SuperCarers and HomeTouch, for example, offer freelance domiciliary care services. Upwork provides remotely-deliverable services, such as website design and blog writing. Since 2015, at least 10 similar apps have emerged for matching schools and supply teachers.

Digital exclusion is also rapidly declining as a barrier for older and disabled people. The estimated proportion of over 55 year olds who had not used the internet in the last three months fell from 80 per cent in 2002 to around 40 per cent a decade later. It is estimated this will fall below 15 per cent by 2030. Between 2013-14, the proportion of disabled people who had used the internet rose by nearly 3 percentage points to just under 70 per cent, and in 2016, nearly 50 per cent had used a mobile phone to access the internet within the last three months.

Appropriate work in the gig economy could therefore have a profound impact on the mental, physical and financial wellbeing of nearly 4 million people who are out of work because of caring responsibilities or ill health.

However, current support programmes are poorly placed to help jobseekers into the gig economy. For example, the specialist programme for disabled people, Work Choice, requires participants to look for at least 16 hours of work per week. Similarly, those on the Work Programme must try to earn enough to lift them off out-of-work benefits entirely. For many participants, these requirements are important for delivering success. But for those who need greater flexibility, they render employment support inaccessible.

Gainful gigging details how employment services can help people find work in the gig economy. It suggests introducing incentives for providers of the Work and Health Programme – which is to replace existing programmes later this year – to help jobseekers find work in the gig economy where appropriate.

Not all suitable jobseekers will be referred to the Work and Health Programme. Jobcentre Plus staff must therefore be trained to help appropriate clients find gig work. Using software designed to measure growth in the gig economy, combined with artificially intelligent recruitment tools, the Government’s jobs website, Universal Jobmatch, should also be transformed into a detailed and expansive library of available work in the gig economy.

By supporting the flexibility platforms offer, Taylor’s review marks a welcome step forwards in the gig economy debate. But the Government must actively support, not only permit, platform work. If employment services do not keep pace, an opportunity to help some of the Country’s most vulnerable will be lost.