Why This Counts: Measuring “Gig” Work

With so much chatter about the emerging “gig” economy, you may wonder if BLS has a stat for that. While our regular measures of labor market activity probably reflect a lot of “gig” work, we can’t currently break this work out separately. To do that, we need to repeat a survey specially designed to measure contingent and alternative work arrangements. Fortunately, BLS has conducted such surveys in the past, and I am very happy to say that we will do it again in 2017.

If you follow our monthly and quarterly employment reports, you know we publish lots of information not just on the number of jobs gained or lost but on the characteristics of jobs and workers. What industries or occupations are growing or shrinking? What are the employment trends for states, counties, or metro areas? How many people work part time, either by choice or because they prefer a full-time job but can only find part-time work? How many people are self-employed? How many people have more than one job? These are just some of the questions we can answer regularly with our employment reports. Other questions are harder to answer.

Many people want to know about workers whose jobs are temporary or irregular or not expected to last. So what kinds of jobs are those? You may be familiar with services where drivers use their own cars to take people where they want to go. Customers who need a ride use a computer or mobile app to request a pickup. If a driver agrees to provide a ride, a third party electronically receives the payment from the rider and pays the driver. Other examples of workers we want to know more about are people who sign up online to perform tasks for pay when it is convenient for them.

While many of these short-term jobs are new, similar jobs have been around a long time in the U.S. economy: substitute teachers, truck drivers, freelance journalist, day laborers in agriculture or construction, on-call equipment movers, actors, and photographers. These jobs are often short term, and many people in these occupations now go online to match up with potential employers. Some people call jobs like these “gigs,” much like the Saturday night gigs your high school garage band played. At BLS we call these contingent or alternative employment arrangements. What do we mean by those terms? Contingent workers do not expect their jobs to last, or their jobs are temporary. Workers with alternative employment arrangements include independent contractors, on-call workers, or people who work through temporary help agencies or contract firms.

Not to brag about being ahead of the curve, but we first examined workers like these in a 1995 survey. We conducted similar surveys in 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2005. Sadly, we haven’t had funding to conduct the survey about contingent and alternative work arrangements since 2005. However, I am delighted the U.S. Department of Labor is funding a one-time update to the survey in May 2017.

BLS will conduct the survey on contingent and alternative employment as part of the May 2017 Current Population Survey. That’s the monthly survey from which we measure the unemployment rate and other important labor market indicators. The questions will identify workers with contingent or alternative work arrangements; measure workers’ satisfaction with their current arrangement; and measure earnings, health insurance coverage, and eligibility for employer-provided retirement plans. To be able to compare today’s economy with results from previous surveys, most of the questions will be the same as they were in earlier surveys. We also will explore whether we need to add questions to reflect changes in work arrangements since the 2005 survey.

To keep this information coming in the future, the 2017 President’s budget requests funds for BLS to permanently conduct one supplement to the Current Population Survey each year. If Congress approves this funding, we would ask the questions on contingent and alternative work arrangements every 2 years, with questions on other important topics in the alternating years.

We have a lot of work to get ready for the survey next year, but I’m very excited that all of us will soon have these measures again after so many years without them.