To Gig or Not to Gig, That is the Question for the U.S. Workforce

NOTE: This story was originally published on January 24, 2018.

Greetings from Washington, D.C.

They turned off the lights for three days. Did anyone notice?

This week also brought news of the President’s latest executive action, to slap large tariffs on offshore manufactured home appliances and rooftop solar panels.

Of the latter, some argue that we should not reward foreign manufacturers for dumping their goods at low prices in our marketplace, essentially under-cutting U.S. manufactured brands.

We get that.

But, as many news outlets reported this week, a 30-percent tariff slapped on Chinese-made rooftop panels could knock as many as 23,000 solar installers out of work. That is because the Chinese dominate the manufacturing of photovoltaic cells (PVCs); the U.S. gave up its leadership in solar panel manufacturing in the early 1980s when President Reagan occupied the White House.

And we never caught up with Germany, and yes, China.

So much for Solyndra.

For a segment of the economy that finally hit its stride path in 2016 and 2017, the huge tariff imposed on rooftop solar panels may well devastate a class of entrepreneurs who have worked extremely hard to make solar power a viable and cost-effective choice for consumers and businesses, alike.

Our hope for this important segment of the Clean Energy sector is that the companies that install these technologies find workarounds that keep their enterprises viable and their workers earning steady paychecks.

After 10 years of representing talent and companies in the environment, sustainability, and social good, it remains clear to us that ours is not a space for the faint of heart. Actually, talent in Clean Energy have to be nimble, pivoting away from bad outcomes towards good and long-lasting ones.

One way that we believe our part of the workforce that includes Clean Energy will grow is through contracted or gig work. Gigging provides talent the means to enter our vast green space — or to do a particular green job — quicker than if they sought a full-time wage-paying job for some company or organization as a sustainability manager.

Such full-time work opportunities rarely materialize.

And the latest workforce findings validate the pivot to Gig work, which is the fastest growing channel for work in our workforce; by 2020, 40 percent of the U.S. workforce will be operating as Gig talent.

Gig work is not easy-to-do work. It requires that the worker possess an entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to operate without much in the way of structure, resources, and steady cash-flow.

And cash-flow is the rub: what is most striking about Gig work is that one’s income can ebb and flow.

There’s another added stressor to doing Gig work: currently those doing it operate without a safety net. Unlike their counterparts who work full-time at companies, Gig workers don’t have access to company health and retirement plans. Instead, they must rely on a spouse’s or significant other’s health coverage, or, purchase their own Obamacare package. What really needs to happen, to bolster the Gig economy, is a structure called benefit portability which would allow workers to port their 401k plans and pensions from past work assignments.

That hasn’t happened. But we urge Congress to make it happen, soon.

The growth and scale of Gig employment will continue, especially since single-member LLCs, the entities under which many Gig workers operate, will be subject to the new lower Federal income tax rate.

For those workers with a passion for sustainability work, Gigging provides the shortest distance to successful engagements. It also provides talent the freedom to do the work that they want to do, not the work that others have chosen for them to do.

After a long hiatus, new episodes of The Tightrope with Dan Smolen podcast are in the queue. In 2018, we will interview new guests who possess a wide range of expertise in meaningful work, smart urban transportation, circular economy, clean energy, resource sustainability, and social responsibility. And we will be discussing the workforce’s overwhelming shift to Gig work.

Our best days lie ahead.

DAN SMOLEN is executive producer and host of the podcast, The Tightrope with Dan Smolen.

Photo credit: Sustainable farmers, Getty Images.

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