Despite labour shortages, why are employers reluctant to hire gig workers?

'It behooves HR departments to start to experiment in these new talent markets'

Despite labour shortages, why are employers reluctant to hire gig workers?

In an era of low unemployment and massive labour shortages, one area of the market is being massively underused: gig workers.

That’s according to Stephen Harrington, future of work lead partner at Deloitte in Ottawa, who says it’s high time organizations begin to pay attention to this sector.

“Very few large employers are utilizing the gig economy as part of their workforce.”

The consultancy recently released a study showing those organizations who ignore this valuable group of workers do so at their peril.

“Probably the more accurate term is platform economy because what we’re most interested in is this idea of digital labour market attachment; these platforms that make it easier, reduce friction between people who are job-seeking, and jobs,” says Harrington.

“You can think about that running the gamut from what we always think of when we think about the gig economy: the Uber and Lyfts of the world to these other platforms like Topcoder and Upworks and others who are beginning to get more and more into the professional skill sets that can be done from anywhere.”

According to a survey done by H&R Block, 13 per cent of Canadians report being part of the gig economy and since the start of the pandemic, three per cent or around 930,300 workers began gig jobs due to their shifting economic circumstances.

There are a growing number of professionals who are attracted to this economy, says Harrington and employers should consider hiring from it.

“There are data scientists, graphic designers, writers, coders, consultants: it really is an ever-expanding market and it’ll be really interesting to see where it goes over the next 10 years.”

Ontario recently introduced new rules trying to include gig workers into the minimum-wage regime.

Forgotten workers

So, why are HR departments reluctant to search for new employees in this expanding marketplace?

“Part of this comes back to the fact that most employers, larger legacy employers, they have HR departments, and we’ve generally trained HR to pay very careful attention to full-time employees,” says Harrington.

“That is what we think of as our workforce but then the rest of the talent ecosystem becomes a mystery.”

Because such a large cohort of potential hires are reluctant to be hired full-time, due to perks such as true flexibility, those workers are being ignored, he says.

“I have to point out to [employers] that somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30 per cent of the U.S. workforce isn’t even looking at their full-time jobs because they’re engaged in platform work. So, some of these skill shortages are exasperated by the fact that we’re ignoring a generation that’s starting to show a different preference.”

Many senior leaders have also expressed reluctance about employing these workers due to how it might be perceived, says Harrington.

“It’s amazing to me how often senior executives will say, ‘We don’t know how to participate in the gig economy, ethically,’ because they’re worried it’ll be a race to the bottom.

“My response is pretty simple: ‘Just don’t do that,’” says Harrington.

Employers could easily post for a job in a gig market platform, set the pay rates and other parameters and then say, “We’re not willing to pay anything less than this perfectly good Canadian wage,” he says.

Learning about gig workers

Instead of shying away, recruiting teams need to take the plunge, according to Harrington.

“Employers just need to educate themselves around what platforms are out there that might have skills that they are desperate to find, and then, between HR and procurement, figure out ‘How can we experiment with utilizing this kind of marketplace and do so in an ethical way?’”

In the meantime, governments need to take into account this segment of working society and draft enabling legislation and policies, he says.

“Even the legal mechanisms that are in place to protect gig workers as a category are unclear because in most jurisdictions, you’re either an employee or a contractor. There really isn’t a lot of gray area in our employment law, as it stands today, and we’d have to think about that.

“The only way to fix that is to take action and build more of a support framework around gig workers so that we can get a better read on how healthy this economy is and continue to try and to work on the policies that surround it until they work for Canadians.”

A Toronto Pizza Hut driver and others recently filed a massive lawsuit alleging the company misclassed them as contractors.

For HR departments, there is no better time than now to dip your toes into this market, says Harrington.

“Get curious, run an experiment somewhere in the organization [and] measure and expand. It behooves HR departments to start to experiment in these new talent markets so that instead of the definition of insanity, which is just keep continuously asking your market that has nothing to offer, looking for these alternatives makes perfect sense to me.”

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