The US Bureau of Labor Statistics published new data on Thursday, for the first time since 2005, on the size of the country’s “contingent workforce”—defined as “persons who do not expect their jobs to last or who report that their jobs are temporary,” as well as those employed in “alternative work arrangements.” The data in the new report is from May 2017, at which time the bureau says 5.9 million US workers (or 3.8 percent of the overall workforce) were employed in contingent jobs:
Using three different measures, contingent workers accounted for 1.3 percent to 3.8 percent of total employment in May 2017. … In February 2005, the last time the survey was conducted, all three measures were higher, ranging from 1.8 percent to 4.1 percent of employment. In addition to contingent workers, the survey also identified workers who have various alternative work arrangements. In May 2017, there were 10.6 million independent contractors (6.9 percent of total employment), 2.6 million on-call workers (1.7 percent of total employment), 1.4 million temporary help agency workers (0.9 percent of total employment), and 933,000 workers provided by contract firms (0.6 percent of total employment).
Wednesday’s data release does not address the size of the “gig economy,” per se. The BLS added new questions to the new version of its Contingent Worker Supplement to identify individuals who found and were paid for gig work through a mobile app or website, but says it is still evaluating that data and will address it in a later release. Surveys over the past few years have produced widely divergent counts of America’s gig economy, estimating the “gig workforce” at anywhere from 600,000 to 54 million people. Much of this discrepancy has to do with how gig economy is defined: Freelancers, who Upwork and the Freelancers Union predict could be a majority of the US workforce in as little as 10 years, are sometimes included in this definition, other times not.
In any case, the BLS’s finding that the contingent workforce represented a smaller share of the workforce in 2017 than in 2005 is raising eyebrows, given that much independent research has found the gig economy to be growing.
What would you do with a $3,000 bonus? Take a trip to Walt Disney World? Well, if you’re working as a chef at the Florida resort this summer, that might be where you got the bonus in the first place. In its effort to fill 3,500 seasonal roles at its sprawling entertainment complex, Disney is offering outsized signing bonuses for some of these hires, including unskilled and part-time employees, Orlando Sentinel business writer Paul Brinkmann reported last week:
A housekeeper hired this year at Disney World’s resorts can get a hiring bonus of $1,250 for a job that pays $10.50 per hour. That’s up from last year’s $500 hiring bonus. And it’s for full-time or part-time hires. Full-time or part-time lifeguards this year can get a $1000 hiring bonus, double what the entertainment giant offered last year, and that is for full-time or part-time jobs, according to job postings. Seasonal lifeguards get a $500 bonus.
Bus drivers can get a $500 hiring bonus – the same as last year. Culinary chefs can get a $3,000 bonus. The bonuses are given after training periods and 30 days on the job.
Universal Orlando, the other major theme park in central Florida, is also hiring 3,000 seasonal workers this year, to whom it is offering “competitive salaries and comprehensive benefits packages.” Both parks are in the midst of holding job fairs to fill these thousands of positions. Disney World’s double bonuses are just the latest anecdotal indicator of the historically tight labor market in the US today. They also illustrate how the state of the labor market, combined with other trends, is affecting seasonal hiring specifically.
As seasonal industries like construction, landscaping, and home improvement ramp up hiring for the warmer months of the year, the tightness of the US labor market is requiring employers to embrace new technologies to recruit at a faster pace, and engendering unusually stiff competition for seasonal talent. Candidates for part-time and temporary work don’t normally hold much leverage when it comes to negotiating pay and benefits, in this economy, they are increasingly able to demand more flexibility in terms of scheduling, Steve Bates writes in an overview of the seasonal hiring landscape at SHRM:
“The old way was ‘You’ve got to work certain shifts,’ ” said Greg Dyer, president of Randstad Commercial Staffing, who is based in Atlanta. “Now the workforce is demanding ‘I want to work when I want to work.’ “
Low unemployment and improved technology have empowered the full-time workforce. That trend is filtering down to seasonal hiring as the gig economy grows and increasing numbers of U.S. workers—particularly Millennials—value flexibility over pay rates and long-term job security.
“It is a worker’s market,” said Jocelyn Mangan, chief operating officer of online employment platform Snagajob, which is headquartered in Arlington, Va. “Employers are having to work harder.” … In addition to using traditional online job postings, employers are experimenting with kiosks, social media and mobile apps to find, schedule and keep seasonal hires.
The scarcity of available seasonal workers is also becoming a challenge for retailers, shipping companies, and other employers in the winter season, leading many companies to start their search for holiday workers earlier than usual in the autumn.
In a recent feature at the New York Times, Liz Alderman shed some light on the experiences of young European professionals who have struggled to cobble together steady incomes in an economy where full-time, permanent positions are scarce:
While the region’s economy is finally recovering, more than half of all new jobs created in the European Union since 2010 have been through temporary contracts. This is the legacy of a painful financial crisis that has left employers wary of hiring permanent workers in a tenuous economy where growth is still weak. Under European labor laws, permanent workers are usually more difficult to lay off and require more costly benefit packages, making temporary contracts appealing for all manner of industries, from low-wage warehouse workers to professional white-collar jobs. …
The temporary-work trend is accelerating around Europe, as employers seek more flexibility to fire and hire workers, and shun permanent contracts with expensive costs and labor protections. In Spain alone, the government reported that 18 million temporary contracts were handed out last year, compared with 1.7 million long-term jobs.
There are signs of this phenomenon in the UK as well as continental Europe. Annie Makoff at People Management recently flagged new research from the Trades Union Congress claiming that three million UK workers are now in what the TUC calls “insecure work”: a 27 percent rise from 2.4 million in 2011. The TUC defines insecure work as “seasonal, casual, temporary or agency work, as well as those on zero-hour contracts and low-paid self-employed workers,” Makoff explains, though there’s some debate over how to define “insecure”:
In a new report, the Economic Policy Institute finds that “an ongoing structural shift toward more intensive use of part-time employment by many employers is driving the elevated rate of involuntary part-time work” in the US, leaving 6.4 million American workers with part-time hours when they would prefer to be working full-time:
Not getting enough hours is the “time-related” type of underemployment, a phenomenon where people may be working but not up to their desired amount, and it is a sign of labor underutilization in the economy. The monthly rate of workers in the U.S. labor market who are working “part time for economic reasons”—who are considered “involuntary” part-timers because they want to and are available to work full time—is the most consistent indicator of such underemployment. That rate is higher now that it was before the Great Recession and during the depths of the early 2000s recession. That it remains stubbornly high indicates that there is more labor market slack than is captured by the unemployment rate alone. …
This report suggests that, in addition to cyclical forces (in this case, lingering effects of the recession), there is an ongoing structural shift in many businesses toward more intensive use of part-time employment, driving the elevated rate of involuntary part-time employment. Increased employer use of part-time positions is particularly evident in industries in which part-time jobs are already more prevalent, such as retail, and hotels and food service.
Dan Kopf at Quartz highlights some updated research from economists Alan Krueger and Lawrence Katz (whose work we’ve looked at before) finding that from 2005 to 2015, almost all of the new jobs created in the US economy were not traditional full-time jobs but rather temporary, contract, or “gig economy” work:
US retailers and other employers of seasonal labor got an early start on holiday season hiring this year, another sign of how much the labor market has tightened, Eric Morath reports at the Wall Street Journal:
Data from job-search site Indeed.com shows retailers, and the warehouse and logistics firms they compete with for seasonal labor, started searching for temporary workers a month earlier than in recent years. This suggests retailers and other firms “anticipate stronger consumer demand and expect that it will be harder to find the people they want to hire,” said Indeed economist Jed Kolko.
Last year, more than one in four retail workers hired in the fourth quarter of 2015 started their jobs in October, the highest share on records back to the 1930s. Companies and analysts say a number of trends are converging. The holiday-shopping season is starting before Halloween for many consumers, rather than the traditional day after Thanksgiving. There are fewer workers available, due to unemployment holding around 5% for the past year. And retailers are competing for the same employees as logistics firms, distribution centers and restaurants during the final months of the year.
SHRM’s Roy Maurer explores how the rapid expansion of e-commerce is helping to fuel this increase in seasonal employment:
Alternative work arrangements like temping and freelancing are making up an increasingly large segment of the US economy. As the “gig economy” grows, more attention is rightly being paid to how contingent workers are treated by the platforms or agencies they rely on for employment opportunities. Organizations that source talent through these intermediaries need to be conscious of whether they are underpaying workers, engaging in discriminatory practices, or otherwise running afoul of labor regulations—especially now that authorities are holding “joint employers” responsible for the compensation and work conditions of those they employ indirectly.
Unfortunately, many temp agencies appear to be doing just that. At NJ.com, Kelly Heyboer calls attention to a disconcerting new investigative report that looked at dozens of recent lawsuits filed by applicants, recruiters, and employees at temp agencies alleging “widespread racist, sexist or discriminatory hiring in the growing temp industry”:
In some cases, factories or companies allegedly placed orders for temps of certain races, and temp agency recruiters complied because they said they felt financial pressure to keep their clients happy. In some cases, temp agencies allegedly used code words to indicate a preference for applicants of a certain race or gender. According to the allegations in lawsuits and interviews: