Jobseekers should be supported into the “gig economy”

18 Jul 17

The gig economy can offer some useful opportunities to people who struggle to work in conventional ways. The government should make the most of them, says Ben Dobson of Reform.

In his review of modern employment practices last week, Matthew Taylor hailed the “genuine two-way flexibility” the gig economy can offer, and the opportunity it presents for “those who may not be able to work in conventional ways”. Reform’s latest report echoes this, and makes recommendations for how government should support people into the gig economy.

Older and disabled people are key beneficiaries of recent growth in flexible work. Many face significant work barriers and are far less likely to be economically active than average. Around half of all 50-64 year olds manage at least one long-term health condition. Of the 3 million in this age group that are economically inactive, around 12% spend over 20 hours per week looking after a sick, disabled or elderly person.

Greater work flexibility could allow them to enter the labour market. In a survey of disability benefit claimants, many indicated that “flexible work, working from home [and] working less than 16 hours per week” would help them sustain employment. A review of the Work Capability Assessment for sickness benefits also found half of those deemed ‘fit for work’ require flexible work hours.

The growth of the gig economy could therefore have a profound impact on the mental, physical and financial wellbeing of the nearly 4 million people who are out of work because of caring responsibilities or ill health. It could also help reduce the stubbornly high out-of-work benefits bill.

However, current support programmes are poorly placed to help jobseekers into the gig economy. For example, the specialist programme for disabled people, Work Choice, requires participants to look for at least 16 hours of work per week. Similarly, those on the Work Programme must try to earn enough to lift them off out-of-work benefits entirely. For many participants, these requirements are important for delivering success. But for those who need greater flexibility, they render employment support inaccessible.

Our report, published today, details how employment services can help people find work in the gig economy. It suggests introducing incentives for providers of the Work and Health Programme – which is to replace existing programmes later this year – to help jobseekers find work in the gig economy where appropriate.

Not all suitable jobseekers will be referred to the Work and Health Programme. Jobcentre Plus staff must therefore be trained to help appropriate clients find gig work. Using software designed to measure growth in the gig economy, combined with artificially intelligent recruitment tools, the government’s jobs website, Universal Jobmatch, should also be transformed into a detailed and expansive library of available work in the gig economy.

By supporting the flexibility platforms offer, Taylor’s review marks a welcome step forwards in the gig economy debate. But the government must actively support, not only permit, platform work. If employment services do not keep pace, an opportunity to help some of the country’s most vulnerable will be lost. 

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