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Graduates eager to dig at the gig

Australia’s higher education system has traditionally been aligned with preparing graduates for permanent full-time employment in the corporate, government, non-profit and community sectors.

Increasingly, however, graduates are choosing to be their own boss rather than continuing their lives as nine-to-five employees.

With more and more graduates pursuing careers in the gig economy, university leaders need to think about how best to prepare students to run a business.

Just 20 years ago, it was rare for college students to go straight from graduation to their own gig, unless it was a secondary hustle.

Most graduates would take full-time employment to gain valuable experience. Much later in life, they might decide to go out on their own.

Today, graduates are stepping more and more directly into roles as consultants, independent contractors, freelancers, side workers, and gig workers.

Gig workers perform short-term contract or project-based work as independent contractors and can be considered an extension of traditional freelancers or freelancers.

Although opinions on what it means to be an on-demand worker vary widely, most modern definitions encompass at least three key elements: the worker provides on-demand services, is classified as an independent contractor, and uses a platform digital to facilitate business transactions.

Within this broad framework, the growing gig economy includes everything from ride-hailing drivers to dog walkers, event managers to journalists, and mobile lawyers to accountants.

According to 2021 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around 8% of employed Australians – or around 1 million people – work for themselves providing on-demand services.

The supposed benefits of on-demand work include greater flexibility, with contractors able to work where and when they want.

Gig workers also experience a greater level of independence. There are no levels of management to oversee assignments and there is often more variety in the type of work performed.

But being a gig worker isn’t for the faint of heart.

To remain commercially viable without a regular guaranteed income requires an exceptional level of financial acumen. And while a construction worker may have their own area of ​​expertise or passion related to delivering their products or services, they must also have the skills to take care of the logistics side of their business, including including administration, IT support, marketing and accounting.

Additionally, there is a certain level of professional isolation that accompanies working alone, with some site workers subject to heightened emotional turbulence but not necessarily having others around to provide valuable support if needed.

Despite these drawbacks, there is little evidence to suggest that graduates’ appetite for joining the labor economy directly from college will soon slow.

That means university leaders need to think about how best to prepare graduates to play valuable roles in the gig economy.

The focus will require universities to shift from helping students be job-ready to being job-ready.

The first step is for universities to incorporate discussions of the gig economy into existing courses.

Students studying a business degree, for example, might learn about a management consulting trajectory and how it differs from traditional full-time work.

Those completing communications and marketing degrees might be encouraged to explore gig work such as freelance stints in writing, television journalism, or digital marketing.

Traditional internships and student placements need to be expanded, perhaps allowing a student to prepare a business plan for a role in the gig economy rather than forcing them to complete a traditional work assignment with a potential employer.

And university career services must expand their reach to help students find work rather than jobs.

There is no doubt that the labor economy will change the way people find work, and university graduates must be prepared for this change.

Universities therefore play a vital role in helping students make this important change.

If the higher education sector fails to adjust its horizon to accommodate the growing on-demand economy, it risks providing graduates with an outdated view of what it means to be a worker in the 21st century.

Professor Gary Martin is Chief Executive of the Australian Institute of Management WA

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