What’s Trending in Gig Employment

Photo of Ride Sharing in ActionMillions of American workers no longer have traditional, full-time, year-round employment. Instead, they’re joining the ‘gig’ economy—stringing together various jobs to make ends meet.

Today’s WatchBlog discusses what is and isn’t known about this evolving group of nontraditional workers. Read on and listen to our podcast with Cindy Brown Barnes, a director in our Education, Workforce, and Income Security team, to learn more.

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What is gig employment?

There is no federal definition of gig employment. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures the number of workers in 3 categories that we collectively refer to as “nontraditional workers”:

  • Contingent —temporary workers
  • Alternative—independent contractors, on-call workers, or temp agency workers
  • Electronically-mediated—workers who get gigs through websites or mobile apps

Some workers can fall into more than one of these categories. For instance, someone who drives for a ride-share company while waiting to start a new job would be considered both contingent and electronically-mediated.

Figure Showing Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Definitions of Contingent, Alternative, and Electronically-Mediated Employment Overlap

BLS surveys may not accurately measure gig employment

BLS conducts surveys to track trends among nontraditional workers. In its 2017 survey, BLS found fewer contingent—or temporary—workers than in its 2005 survey. However, it stands to reason that there should have been an increase in contingent workers during those 12 years due to the recent rise in “electronically-mediated” employment, such as ride-sharing. So, the survey may be missing some key parts of the evolving labor market.

BLS did add four questions to the 2017 survey to try to capture people who find jobs on websites and apps. However, there were issues with many of the responses to these new questions and it’s unclear whether the data is accurate.

We also found that BLS’s 2017 survey data only measured workers’ main jobs for contingent and alternative employment. So, BLS could be undercounting workers that use these positions as side jobs. The survey also only asked respondents about their work in the past week and may not have captured supplemental and occasional work.

Adjusting the survey

BLS is working on getting a better picture of nontraditional employment. It enlisted help from an expert national statistics committee to evaluate the survey and design a new survey supplement, which should be done March 2020.

To read more about what we found, check out our recent report.


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