The L&D Gig Economy: How industry changes have led to wider freelance adoption

The L&D Gig Economy: How industry changes have led to wider freelance adoption

Times are certainly changing when it comes to the way we work. The ubiquitous rise of technology has enabled a new wave of employees: the freelancer. Remote working is on the rise and the scope for a successful entry into the gig economy has never been so high.

Many of us believe that this rise in freelancers is due to the workers themselves. More and more people are electing to leave the structure and stability of permanent work in the pursuit of flexible working, variation of work and higher potential earnings. But they aren’t the only ones looking for better solutions to their working problems.

Because the structure and requirements from L&D continue to evolve, we’re beginning to see the demand for freelancers rise. From what I can see, more and more L&D departments are proactively pursuing freelancers as a real solution to some of their challenges. And it appears to be working.

Our requirements aren’t the same

I’ve been working in L&D for a long time, and back when I was in-house freelancers were rarely used. If they were, they helped with a specific project which required really specialist skills, or maybe they served as a temporary stop-gap until the team could find a permanent person. Either way, at this time the use of freelancers in this way was not common.

But the past couple of years have seen a massive shift in how and when L&D wants and needs to use freelancers, and I believe this is a direct result of the changeable times our industry has been weathering. Buzzwords. Skills gaps. Budget restrictions. Apathetic learners. The rapid introduction of the Internet of Things into our world has completely changed the way businesses work and learn – and L&D is grappling to keep pace.

The skills we need have shifted

One the biggest challenges which emerge from all this change are the foundational skills an L&D department now requires to be successful. This has resulted in a huge change in the types of people we now need in order to stay present, relevant and purposeful in the organisational landscape.

For example, here is a snapshot view of how skills requirements have changed in just a decade.

Our operational models have moved too

Sourcing these skills, on a permanent basis, is a real pain point for many businesses. They really do need these skills to meet the changing, complex needs of their modern workforce. So what do they do?

The growth and expansion of required skills in L&D isn’t the only thing that has been affected by this huge pace of change. Processes, ways of working and long-standing operational models are beginning to be rattled (or in extreme cases, torn down completely) too. For some, this change is hugely disruptive, but others are seeing this as an opportunity to start to do things differently.

I often speak with clients who have completely altered their approach to learning. Many are moving away from having a large, multi-faceted team and instead are opting for an outsourced model. This outsourced model suits the changeable times ahead; a small, capable core team to manage the more BAU tasks which are then supplemented by freelancers when and where in-house skills are lacking.

Interestingly, many of our clients appear to be doing less ‘big ticket’ work with vendors too. Foregoing the lengthy creation and iteration process for bespoke learning, many L&D functions are instead electing to have processes in place which allow for content to be created quickly, and on an ad-hoc basis.

Agility and leanness have become vital for success

From my observations, one thing has become very clear: L&D is now prioritising the need to be agile and responsive to swift changes in their business. They also need to be able to pivot quickly to adapt to unexpected challenges. For many this has resulted in a much leaner core team, supplemented by freelancers.

And that’s great, because in amongst all of these changes the freelance economy in L&D has matured. Not only are we reaching peak times for the gig economy (there was a 31% annual rise in freelancers last year), we’re starting to see an extreme change in the attitudes of freelancers too.

Upskilling no longer sits with the employer

One of the most exciting things I am seeing in our mature freelancer market is self-employed workers taking accountability for their own professional development. As demand for freelancers rises, so does the competitive nature of the market.

Gig workers have started to realise that in order for them to differentiate, get the best job and keep at the forefront of their industry’s innovations, they need to invest in themselves. They’re upskilling themselves with online courses, YouTube videos or Open University; they’re attending industry events and getting more involved in professional networks. All in a bid to be the best of the best. For them and their personal businesses, being ahead of the curve is vital for the maintenance of a professional lifestyle they love.

Both parties are benefitting from freelancing

The dramatic changes in the world seem to pummel us all with new tech, new skills and new frontiers for learning and development. They introduce new levels of challenge and needs that we didn’t even know existed, but it seems to me that many in L&D are rolling with the punches and actually evolving to a much more productive, holistic way of working.

It’s no secret that in the past decade the gig market has matured. And these changes have resulted in a paradigmatic shift in the way learning and development makes use of their budgets and the people that sit within it. L&D is well versed in how to make the best use of freelancers, and it seems both parties are beginning to reap the benefits of this partnership. I have to say, I don’t think there is a better time to be a freelancer or an L&D department using them.

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