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The US government is seriously underestimating how much Americans rely on gig work

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brooke cagle 609875 unsplash916635448 - The US government is seriously underestimating how much Americans rely on gig work

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics released its long-awaited 2017 Contingent Worker Supplement this morning—a huge event for us data nerds! It gives us a “current” (the data is from May 2017) view of gig work in the US, but there are a few problems with the findings.

Some background: The report gives an overview of people employed in what the BLS calls “alternative work arrangements,” which includes contingent, freelance, and contract work. The agency even has a handy video to explain the categories.

The results by the numbers: As of May 2017 …

  • 3.8 percent of US workers—5.9 millionpeople—held contingent jobs (jobs that are temporary or that workers do not expect to last).
  • About one-third of contingent workers were employed in education and health services.
  • 55 percent of them would have preferred a permanent job.
  • There were 10.6 million independent contractors, 2.6 million on-call workers, 1.4 million workers employed through temporary-help agencies, and 933,000workers provided by contract firms.
  • Two-thirds of independent contractors were men.

For comparison: The last equivalent BLS survey occurred back in 2005—long before Uber, and back when YouTube was still in its infancy. It showed that 7.4 percent of workers were employed as independent contractors. Surprisingly, that means the proportion of workers relying on independent consulting or freelancing for their main livelihood has dropped since the last survey.

Keep in mind: The data takes into account only people’s primary jobs. That disqualifies a large segment of the gig workforce, including people who supplement their regular income with freelance or contract work to get by. “This survey is anchored to methodologies that reflect a bygone era for the workforce,” says Stephane Kasriel, the CEO of Upwork, a website for freelancers.

Alastair Fitzpayne, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s future-of-work initiative, agrees that the report doesn’t paint the full picture. “We encourage BLS and other researchers to further explore how workers are supplementing their income with freelance or independent work as a complement to the data that was released today,” says Fitzpayne.

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