Pizzas, taxis and adult learning: developing careers in our online world

EPALE Thematic Coordinator Andrew McCoshan looks at why adult learning needs to learn from the online taxi and pizza delivery companies that are revolutionising the way we work.

Adult learning and the gig economy.


EPALE Thematic Coordinator Andrew McCoshan looks at why adult learning needs to learn from the online taxi and pizza delivery companies that are revolutionising the way we work.


The ‘gig’ economy is a new way of organising work. Online platforms connect buyers and sellers of products and services; and individuals can sell their labour for short-term assignments or projects – ‘gigs’. Once, only musicians did gigs. But the digital revolution has made firms like Uber and Airbnb possible, opening up opportunities for greater self-employment. Online platforms provide opportunities for skilled professionals like designers, editors, programmers and sound professionals. Less skilled self-employment like taxi-driving or bicycle delivery is also enabled.

It’s not yet clear what this might mean for career development except that it may well change it in some important ways. We’ve known for a long time that there are no longer any guarantees of a ‘job for life’; nearly 25 years ago Charles Handy coined the phrase ‘portfolio working’. The number of self-employed people has barely changed since then, but attitudes have:

‘Today, consulting or freelancing for five businesses at the same time is a badge of honour. It shows how valuable an individual is ... Working at home or in cafes, starting businesses with teams of consultants and freelancers you’ve met only online … indicate “initiative,” “creativity,” and “adaptability,” which are very desirable traits in today’s workplace.’

Micha Kaufman – Co-Founder and CEO of Fiverr

Digital platforms also open up opportunities for entrepreneurs to enter markets very easily and, as Arun Sundararajan says, ‘because these platforms provide layers of trust, brand and expertise on demand, the need for specialising before you’re qualified to become a provider is reduced’. The gig economy can also mean businesses save resources in terms of benefits, office and training. 


The pros and cons

New forms of employment like the gig economy have pros and cons. Businesses save money by no longer having a full-time workforce to train; but then how do people get trained? You can become an online seller of your talent with just enough of the skills you need; but if you don’t have much underpinning knowledge how will your skills develop? Your way of working may give you valuable skills but how can you demonstrate them reliably?

How should adult learning respond to such challenges? Many of the issues thrown up by the advent of the ‘gig’ economy are not new, although the scale may prove to be different if it starts to affect large numbers of workers. Self-employed and part-time workers have always been at a disadvantage when it comes to training compared to people on permanent contracts: permanent employees may, in larger companies especially, benefit from human resources facilities and training. Much of the learning in the ‘gig’ economy is probably not formal, with people acquiring specific skills or knowledge to add to their portfolio of competences in order to complete an assignment successfully. 

Perhaps our biggest concern, however, should be the low skilled. As one author puts it:

'To the optimists, [the gig economy] promises a future of empowered entrepreneurs and boundless innovation. To the naysayers, it portends a dystopian future of disenfranchised workers hunting for their next wedge of piecework.'

The low skilled do less formal training than people with higher skills. And the type of employment involved in taxi-driving or pizza delivery probably reduces still further the chances of doing some form of formal training.


Adult learning: make like pizza delivery!

The good news is that adult learning has good experience of dealing with such issues. This experience now needs to be applied online.

Even though the gig economy is in its early stages, it’s pretty clear that adult learning has to use similar platforms and tools to meet the needs of these learners.

Just as these platforms connect buyers and sellers of pizzas, we need them to connect adult educators to learners. And we need to use them to create environments where adult educators can develop innovative approaches to meet new and emerging needs. 

Such approaches do not come cheaply. Investment and collaboration with other stakeholders are key. But at another level, we can also take smaller steps:

  • We could use digital technology to make it possible for people to access and get credit for small bits of learning at a time and place of their choosing.
  • We could develop online opportunities for workers to get their non-formal and informal learning validated: digital technology has great potential to support validation processes that have easy access and are simple to use.

And we also need to know more about how workers in new forms of employment might acquire and develop their skills. Projects like the CrowdLearn study being conducted by the University of West London and the Oxford Internet Institute, and funded by Cedefop, will help provide some of the answers. Adult learning has a chance not just to prepare itself for new forms of employment but to seize the opportunities they present.

Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training for over 30 years. For more than 15 years he has conducted studies and evaluations for the EU, and before that was a consultant in the UK. Andrew is currently an independent researcher and consultant, an ECVET Expert for the UK, and Senior Research Associate at the Educational Disadvantage Centre at Dublin City University in Ireland.

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