Contracts can be a career: Finding a place in the gig economy

  • Home
  • Blog
  • Contracts can be a career: Finding a place in the ...

Contracts can be a career: Finding a place in the gig economy

Whether by choice or a lack of options, more people are working in the “gig” economy. Gig work is different from joining a company as a “permanent” employee, so it is important to manage your career well if you are — or aspire to be — a gig worker.

From Grab drivers and cleaners to website developers and lawyers, online platforms and more flexible systems are enabling people to take part in short-term digital-enabled jobs, or “gigs”, and get paid for their work.

In the United States, for example, Forbes estimates that more than 36 per cent of workers, or about 57 million people, are in the gig economy.

Here in Singapore, figures from the Ministry of Manpower show that there were about 200,000 freelancers in 2016 and self-employed persons made up 8 to 10 per cent of the resident workforce.

Insurance company Manulife’s more recent Investment Sentiment Index indicated an even higher percentage of gig workers and found that 49 per cent of workers not presently engaged in digital-enabled work were interested in doing that type of work in the future.

What makes this latest wave of freelance work different, Manulife observed, is that technology such as mobile applications and browser-based software have made it easier than ever to freelance.

Recruitment firm PersolKelly also found that flexibility is the main driver for those seeking gig work.

University of Michigan professor Sue Ashford noted that two more factors seem to be enabling this trend. One is that companies are cutting costs wherever they can and it is cheaper to have contract labour than full-time employees. The second is technology — more people can work from anywhere doing jobs that used to require an office and equipment that was only in an office.

While the gig economy is often associated with app-based platforms such as driving, PersolKelly said that it extends into professional roles in sectors including education, hospitality and the arts. Manulife’s survey found that about 47 per cent of gig workers sell goods and services on platforms such as Carousell or Lazada, 43 per cent drive cars, 24 per cent share online content or videos, and 11 per cent have set up a start-up.


A key challenge for these workers, though, is that they face uncertainty about future revenue and are not receiving benefits such as health insurance or vacation time that a traditional worker would get.

They may also be paid low wages and do not receive sick pay. And even though online or mobile applications allow people to reduce the time needed to manage their work, they face unpaid hours for finding new gigs and the responsibilities of operating a business or being self-employed.

Many of these gig workers don’t even realise the costs.

News agency Bloomberg noted: “Uber drivers, for example, take their own cars to work and pay their own expenses, but only some of them calculate their gasoline expenses. And (only) the most diligent will calculate the depreciation of their car.”

That precariousness, Dr Ashford observed, means that people work closer to the economic edge, closer to not making it, and have insecurity and anxiety always present in this work.

While the work is personalised and individuals can make choices about what to produce, the impact feels very personal if their choices aren’t successful.


Even though there are challenges with gig work, there are ways to increase the likelihood of success.

To succeed, Mr Walter Lim, founder of digital and content marketing agency, suggested that gig workers should embrace an entrepreneurial mindset, learn marketable hard skills, pick up sought-after soft skills, and explore freelance platforms.

Indeed, a multitude of online platforms cater to gig workers.

For example, Upwork allows workers to bid for projects, for instance, while Hubstaff enables companies to find talent across the globe.

Specialised platforms such as 99designs for designers, AsiaWriters for writers and MomoCentral or Toptal for software developers offer jobs for people with specialised skills.

A recent study by Dr Ashford, Associate Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri from global business school Insead and Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski found that the most effective independent workers use strategies to cultivate four types of connections — to “place, routines, purpose and people”.

A place to work protect them from distractions and help them avoid feeling rootless.

Routines enhance focus and performance.

Purpose means taking work that is meaningful rather than just being a way to earning a living.

And connecting with people is critical for avoiding social isolation and receiving reassurance.

“Our conclusion is that people in the gig economy must pursue a different kind of success that comes from finding a balance between predictability and possibility, between viability and vitality,” the researchers said.

Gig workers also need to take their financial life into their own hands. That means finding insurance to cover unexpected events or illnesses, accumulating an emergency fund to cover three to six months’ income, saving for goals such as retirement, embracing lifelong learning, and obtaining contracts from employers to protect payments.

Recognising some of the challenges, the Singapore Government’s tripartite workgroup has recommended requiring businesses to use written contracts, having more government agencies involved in mediating payment-related disputes, making available an insurance product for self-employed persons, and Medisave contributions into the national saving scheme, the Central Provident Fund.

While many people still prefer to work for traditional companies, the gig economy is growing and more people are finding it fulfilling. To succeed, you will need to do things differently and proactively self-manage your career.