“My boy is wicked smart.”
Good Will Hunting is one of my favorite movies. Featuring Oscar winning screenwriting, directing and acting, the film launched the careers of both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Early in the movie, Will and a Harvard Grad student have a verbal sparring match on the finer points of graduate level American History in a Cambridge bar.
The line from this scene that has stuck with me is the one about the Harvard grad student paying $150K for an education he could have received for a “dollar fifty at the local library” (as an alumnus of Harvard’s Business School, this personally hits home, particularly when thinking about the years of checks written while paying off my student loans!)
This does not mean that degrees don’t have value. To the contrary, students enrolled in institutions of higher learning often demonstrate more than just skills and knowledge. University students gain connections and share experiences that are meaningful and valuable in the modern workplace.
However, the scene underscores a critical point – there are lots of ways to accumulate knowledge, many at low cost. Just like Will, almost everyone can get low/no cost access to a vast array of books and information at the local library. Innovations in information technology have brought about a steady increase in vehicles that can deliver knowledge. This trend pre-dates the Internet. For example, after the invention and subsequent popularization of the radio came the first lectures over the airwaves. In the 1930s, many predicted that television would be the “best hope for bringing enlightenment to the American people.” In a former life, I managed the remaining vestige of a university that originally delivered lectures remotely – via satellite transmission. More recently, there has been an explosion of nontraditional educational vehicles – MOOCs, code academies, free tools like Khan Academy and online ‘marketplaces’ such as Udemy, all of which provide new ways in which to learn.
This brings me back to Good Will Hunting. While Will has lots of knowledge and, by extension, skills1)Note: in this article, I don’t make a distinction between knowledge and skills. I don’t believe the two are synonymous (e.g. knowing the instrumentation for an airplane doesn’t mean one can pilot one). However, in many fields the two are nearly indistinguishable (e.g. a programmer who knows Python should be able to properly code in the language)., it takes a haphazard incident – solving a complex math problem on an MIT hallway blackboard – that leads to the discovery of his unique talents.
At a fundamental level, having knowledge and skills but no way to demonstrate these is a struggle for many. This situation is ironic given today’s labor market where employers are begging for qualified candidates to fill open positions. Yet despite the proliferation of dozens of new learning platforms, no system has emerged to widely communicate a robust variety of skills to employers. Several commentators have predicted the development of these systems — sometimes called competency or skills “marketplaces” but a fair question emerges: if new vehicles through which to learn have arisen in the past but marketplaces for skills have not emerged, why now?
Look at the person on your left. Look at the person on your right. One of you is a freelancer.
A.J. Francis is a defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins, a third year player under contract to earn $510,000 this year. He is also an Uber driver during the offseason. He is not alone – there are 160,000 freelancers that drive for Uber worldwide and countless others work for companies that rely on freelancers throughout the economy, from delivery drivers, to custodians, to satellite cable installers, to digital age valet companies.
Yet the work is not limited to low wage or vocationally oriented activities. Consider this statement from Deloitte’s recent Global Human Capital Trends Report: “[T]oday, roles that can be filled by contingent workers include IT professionals, engineers, computer programmers, accountants, and those in other technical positions…”
When you add up the figures, the numbers are staggering. In a 2014 survey conducted by the Freelancers Union, over one-third of American workers are involved in some sort of freelance activity. That’s over 50 million people. The freelance workforce is no longer a part of the workforce, it is increasingly THE workforce.
Workers choose freelancing because they either desire additional income, flexibility in work location and hours, or enjoy a variety of work assignments. Changes in the environment have also contributed to the upward trend in the freelance workforce. Technology increasingly allows for work to be conducted remotely. In the US, the Affordable Care Act has eliminated a significant barrier to working outside the construct of a traditional employer-employee model.
Unsurprisingly, a slew of companies have emerged to take advantage of this trend, including Crowdsite, Fiverr, Flinja, Freelancer, Guru.com, vLance, Task Army and Upwork to name a few. These companies are marketplaces for freelance or crowdsourced work – matching individuals with skills and employers who need work done on specific and discrete projects.
Employers, either prompted by a better economic proposition or an inability to find the right type of talent for their needs, are steadily increasing the use of these freelance marketplaces. In a recent survey conducted by Upwork, 41% of hiring managers planned to hire more freelancers in the next five years, compared with only 5% who expected to hire less.
However, when the thought processes of company hiring managers’ change from “who do I want to hire for the next five years” to “who do I want to use in this project for the next five weeks,” an implicit mental shift occurs. Employers will be incentivized to proactively ascertain the talent and skill of freelancers who bid for work and will seek out mechanisms that provide this.
And this brings us full circle with my past posts on Skills Marketplaces and Guild Systems and Bootcamps – with the proliferation of alternative education providers (General Assembly, DevBootcamp, EdX, FutureLearn, Khan Academy) and the rapid growth in the freelance economy, the dawn of the age of the competency marketplace is upon us.
Editors Note: This guest post is written by Raj Kaji (@NirajKaji), who has worked for over a decade in Higher Education, including at Bridgepoint Education, Walden University and Laureate Education as well as an entrepreneur in founding four start-ups. All points presented represent the personal views of the author and in no way reflect the opinions of his current or past employers.
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|1.||↑||Note: in this article, I don’t make a distinction between knowledge and skills. I don’t believe the two are synonymous (e.g. knowing the instrumentation for an airplane doesn’t mean one can pilot one). However, in many fields the two are nearly indistinguishable (e.g. a programmer who knows Python should be able to properly code in the language).|