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Policies That Help Gig Workers Improve Their Skills Will Help Small Businesses Grow Business growth is slowed by the shortage of skilled workers, even as millions of workers are underemployed and looking for more opportunity.

By Brent Messenger Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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The workforce in America is changing rapidly, and many of our professional, governmental and economic institutions are lagging behind. Despite a low unemployment rate, many people are underemployed even as employers struggle to find the right talent to get what they need done.

The story is even more complicated when you consider that 94 percent of net job growth in the U.S. has come by way of contingent or independent work over the last 10 years. In a country where policies around labor draw a hard and fast line between independents and traditional "W-2" employees, shifting trends in the workforce have outpaced the way government approaches those trying to earn a living. Independent work has its challenges -- no employer paid health or disability insurance and you're on your own to fund your retirement, to name three -- but it's also some of the fastest-growing work in the country.

Institutions like workforce development agencies need to recognize this reality and reimagine specialized, skilled independent work. Governments, businesses and communities should be focused on building systems that can incrementally create opportunity, rather than having a worldview and an educational ecosystem that aligns only with traditional work. This kind of approach will provide long-term educational value that extends beyond immediate independent work while filling a much-needed talent gap for businesses everywhere.

Related: Think Freelancers Have Easy, Flexible Lives? Think Again.

But what is a specialized independent worker? This is someone who collects a 1099 tax form each year for service-oriented work that's pegged to a specialized skill. Many of us have tapped someone like this to help our business. Think: writer, graphic designer or programmer. This particular subset of independent worker is unique for three reasons:

  • Specialized independent workers serve as a major talent driver for both small and large businesses, helping to close the skills gap.
  • Specialized independent workers' jobs are unlikely to be automated out of existence, thanks to the creative and service-oriented elements of their work.
  • Specialized independent workers can earn a living anywhere they have reliable access to a fast internet connection.

We know this group is already successful. U.S. Census Bureau data tell us that this group of professionals is projected to haul in $110 billion across America's 15 biggest cities, accounting for more than 2.5 million workers in 2017's tax year.

Recognizing the value of these workers is only half the equation. How do we create more skilled, specialized workers?

Related: The Surprising Reality Is Freelancers Are Happy and Prospering

It starts with upskilling. Use educational resources that already exist through community colleges and vocational schools, as well as digital resources like Udemy, to teach the hard skills that equate to income today. Those same exact skills may not be in demand tomorrow; after all, industries change. But by creating a foundation of education and a system of upskilling, workers are empowered to build on top of their knowledge base. This is an idea that's been backed by research, pointing to side jobs and skill diversification as a way to create sustainability in the workforce. It makes workers more nimble and more valuable, and the entire idea becomes a much easier sell when education directly leads to opportunities for income. Even training options that don't come with a diploma are a strong foundation to experiment and generate some momentum.

Creating a viable, independent skilled workforce extends beyond just education. As mentioned above, being an independent means truly taking care of everything for your business and understanding how to build a portfolio, manage a client roster and deal with things like invoicing. Creating secondary education around the broad strokes of freelancing bolsters a newly educated workforce and provides them with the nuts and bolts of running a business of one. It also creates less friction and eases the burden on potential or prospective clients, as novice freelancers better understand the rules of engagement. Samaschool is a non-profit that focuses entirely on introducing the freelance economy to underemployed or unemployed individuals. Its digital coursework outlines exactly how to go about starting a career as an independent, and provides guidance through some of the challenges that come with it.

Related: These Are the Best Cities to Be Your Own Boss

In a connected digital world, there is no reason why someone in New York should be better positioned to perform web design services than someone in Chicago or Boise. The only limiting factor is casting a net wide enough to get the work to begin with. That's why access is so vital for skilled, independent work. Whether that comes in the form of a digital marketplace or simply through the internet, bringing the offline to the online opens up a much larger and more profitable world for skilled independents, in addition to creating a much larger and diverse talent pool for small businesses to tap into.

Upskilling, learning the craft of freelance and creating access, are all attainable today. There is absolutely no reason why workers everywhere cannot tap into the economic opportunity that is freelancing, while providing services and work to a whole country of entrepreneurs. The issues tend to lie with how governments, nonprofits and businesses cobble together an approach to the changing professional landscape. Some of that is changing, though. Kansas City, Richmond, Stockton, Calif., and Memphis have all taken an important step forward, partnering with a new coalition called the Digital Workforce Development Initiative.

The aim is simple; create opportunity and fill the gaps for local workers and businesses by opening up skilled independent work for everyone. As more cities and states recognize how the wave of independence will impact their citizenry, it will be important to acknowledge the opportunities and the challenges that come with this new way of working. Addressing it head-on and actively will no doubt produce better outcomes for workers and the businesses that rely on them.

Brent Messenger

Global Head of Community at Fiverr

Brent Messenger designs and executes large-scale community engagement programs for global brands, including Fiverr, Airbnb, Lyft and former President Barack Obama.

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