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Universities should be preparing students for the gig economy

By Diane Mulcahy

This year’s news that the majority of Google’s work force is made up of independent and temporary workers rather than full-time employees is just one example of the rapid transformation of the corporate work force. Despite these changes, universities have yet to integrate the study or practices of the gig economy into their curriculum or career services. Instead, they continue to educate and prepare students to become full-time employees in full-time jobs.

To better prepare their students for the work force they’ll enter when they graduate, universities can take three important steps:

1 Teach the basic skills of working independently. Many of the skills required to be a successful independent worker can be taught: how to create a business entity, how to manage a small back office, how to negotiate prices and consulting contracts, and how to develop and execute a marketing and branding strategy.

2 Expand career services. University career services have ignored the rising incidence, and importance, of independent work. They must do a better job of helping students find work, not just jobs.

3 Teach what they practice. Universities need only turn the mirror on themselves to see the working world their students will enter. Their own business models and practices are a case study in how employers are changing work and the work force. For instance:

  • Universities rely on independent contractors. If they are part of the trend of hiring significant numbers of independent workers, they should prepare their students for that future, too.
  • Most professors have side gigs. Universities expect and allow their full-time tenured professors to have side gigs, such as consulting and advisory work, paid research and speaking engagements, to elevate their brand and augment their income.
  • Universities are going online. Universities are separating the need to be on campus from the ability to earn course credits and degrees. Higher education’s fastest-growing new product can be found in remote courses and programs that allow students to learn when and where they choose.

By teaching their students what they themselves already practice, universities can do a better job preparing their graduates for the increasingly independent work force of today, not the traditional jobs of yesterday.

Diane Mulcahy is an author and an adjunct lecturer at Babson College.

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