Wingham Rowan is Director of the “Beyond Jobs” project in London, UK. Beyond Jobs grew out of multiple UK government investments to create advanced markets for low skilled people seeking non-standard employment. Wingham oversaw these projects and market launches. He now works with cities in Europe and the USA.
Many years before “The Sharing Economy”, he authored two books (one published internationally) and countless articles about the potential of new markets for irregular economic activity in communities. He has written multiple policy papers about the “grey zone” between structured work and unemployment. His papers advocating “Full Spectrum Employment Support”—increasing options for irregular workers in the workforce system, not just job seekers—have been published by institutes from the anti-poverty left to the free-market right.
1MFWF: Standard calls for work flexibility tend to take the existing corporate landscape as a given, and push for tweaks like flexible schedules and options to work remotely. You’re calling for a broader revolution, however: a whole new way of thinking about the labor market in general. What is your vision?
Wingham: We need markets for odd hours of work that are completely built around the interests of the worker. That would be a win for everyone: it should drive up quality of the workforce, ensuring participants are more motivated, reliable and adaptable to changes in demand.
Worker-centric markets would allow anyone to sell the hours of their choosing, on their own terms, across as many different types of work and as many employers as they wished. Everyone would have data identifying their optimal opportunities so for example; I may be selling my time as a carpet layer, furniture remover, and errand runner within 4 miles of home when the market says to me; “with your skills and times of availability you would earn 25% more some of the time as a home electrician, click here for help with training”.
These markets would deduct tax, enforce regulation. They could support protections, opportunities for progression, and financial services that are inconceivable in the the current model of irregular work markets.
The issue is: who will start such markets? There is a sleeping giant in labor markets at the moment: public workforce systems. They fund all sorts of facilities, research, training and support to boost quality employment. Every state in the U.S. runs its own jobs bank. In the UK we have a national jobs bank run by government called Universal Jobsmatch. But this vast machine is currently focused entirely on jobs, because that is what they have always done.
My vision is that public workforce systems move to “full spectrum employment policy”. Of course, jobs are important. But millions of people need to work in a more personalized way for all sorts of reasons. Why not offer them the kind of facilities regarded as essential to job seekers? That gives everyone in the “gig” economy more choice.
1MFWF: You’ve been championing a workplace transformation for more than 20 years. What first sparked your interest in this area?
Wingham: I was a television producer and host putting together a series for ITV about a new thing called the Internet in 1994. I realized it could empower people to sell their time more effectively. (For 99% of us, our time is our key economic asset, it’s what an employer pays for.) It is a huge challenge to enable; technologically and in terms of making markets. But I think we are getting there!
1MFWF: One of the criticisms of the so-called “gig economy” is that existing platforms potentially take advantage of workers by circumventing workplace protections and taking cuts of pay. Your goal is to ensure the opposite: that workers can gain financial stability through irregular—but regulated—work. Will your approach only work in the UK (where you’re based), or do you see it transferring to the U.S. (and elsewhere) despite different labor and tax laws?
Wingham: It could actually work better in the US in the short term (because the American public workforce system is so formidable, enjoying bipartisan support). The key problem with irregular work is not—I believe—classification of workers or portable benefits, it’s the problems of finding the work and its general low quality once found. Crack those problems, bring the activity into the legitimate economy (not off-the-books working), and it gets much easier to solve the other issues.
1MFWF: Do you see the future of work as a combination of on-demand/project-based employment as well as flexible employment within the traditional salaried landscape—or do you think the former will completely replace the latter?
Wingham: Jobs will always be around. If the need for work is regular, an employee is more cost-effective, more knowledgeable, and better connected in an organization than any kind of temporary worker. But there is huge demand for top-up or ad-hoc workers. We have to unlock that demand and turn it into a firehose of opportunities for progression.
1MFWF: How can our readers learn more about your work?
Wingham: So glad you asked: www.beyondjobs.com.
Watch Wingham Rowan’s TED talk, A New Kind of Job Market:
photo credit: Wingham Rowan