People have always looked for a side hustle or temporary work to make money. But the modern-day gig economy has been supercharged by technology.
With the tap of a finger or click of a mouse, digital platforms make it simple to explore on-demand work across a growing range of industries, skills and wage levels.
There are online sites for IT workers, engineers, dental hygienists and CPAs as well as for those in the wedding industry, those looking to give rides, share their homes, run errands, fix broken appliances or take care of your elderly parents.
About a quarter of U.S. workers participate in the gig economy full- or part-time, according to Gallup, with expectations that the numbers will continue to rise.
The growth represents a fundamental shift in the way Americans view work.
"Gone are the days when someone will stay with one company for decades and retire from that place," said Mike Lang, jobs service director for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Lang has spent two decades focused on workforce development, and said the rise in gig-economy platforms such as Uber, TaskRabbit, Minneapolis-based Field Nation and others has coincided with a shifting mind-set among job seekers.
"There's more openness to the gig economy than there was during the recession, when there was an intense desire to find stability," Lang said. "Now that we've had this period of 10 years or so of growth, there's more openness to different methods of employment. And it might be related to the fact that job vacancies don't always line up with what people want to do."
Some workers turn to the gig economy to supplement full-time jobs. Others juggle multiple gigs while trying to land a permanent full-time job with benefits.
Even in the tightest labor market in a generation, U.S. businesses continue to increase their reliance on contractors and freelancers.
Surveys by Accountemps found that 68% of senior managers in the Twin Cities area consider a long period of consistent temporary work comparable to full-time work when evaluating job applicants. Nearly half said they are more open today than they were two years ago to hiring interim workers to bridge gaps while looking for full-time employees.
Yet the gig economy remains a category of work that remains largely undefined and unrecognized by U.S. policy.
While many contractors, temp workers and freelancers enjoy the freedom and flexibility, cities and states such as California are seeking more protections for the growing army of gig workers who don't receive health insurance, workers' compensation and other benefits and protections afforded to full-time workers.
Platform-based work remains a niche category in the broader labor force, but it is fundamentally changing the way people organize their work lives, say economists and workplace specialists.
With extremely low unemployment, temporary work is gaining traction as a career option, said Kyle O'Keefe, a Minneapolis-based senior regional vice president with the staffing firm Robert Half.
"What's driving this from the employee and employer side is scarcity of talent," O'Keefe said. "It's everyone from the new grad looking for that first job to experienced professionals looking for contract work to supplement their income."
Companies that can't find workers turn to contractors to meet deadlines, work on one-time projects, fill in for absences or to rein in labor costs.
O'Keefe said contract workers should include everything on their résumés, as it explains gaps and can reflect a range of experiences and skills. Interim work is in, he says, and doesn't need to be a black mark on your work history.
"Companies are changing their environments," O'Keefe said. "Flexibility is becoming more and more important, and must be a part of your culture."
Flexibility — and a sense of adventure — motivated Debbie Donovan to step into the gig economy.
Several years ago she left a publishing software company where she'd worked for 15 years to pursue what she calls an encore career in the legal field.
As a full-time student, Donovan worked part-time in a law office and then found a full-time job. But it proved challenging to juggle school work and create time for the 180-hour internship she'll soon need to complete her associate degree and paralegal certification.
In September, she became a driver for Lyft.
"I definitely see it as a season in my life where this is a good solution," Donovan said. "It doesn't pay a lot of money. I have to be diligent and go out on snowy days and cold days, and work myself into times when traffic will happen."
Donovan, of St. Paul, found she really enjoyed the work, which also compelled her prioritize her time and upend her lifestyle as a night owl.
"One of the things this has taught me: Your time equals money," she said. "Unlike salaried positions where you get a paycheck, you are responsible for every dollar going into your bank account."
There was a learning curve as she figured out the platform, wasted too much money on gas and underestimated the wear and tear on her vehicle.
"What I've figured out is if I get a really early start between 5 and 6 a.m., I can be out in the morning for a handful of hours," she said. "Things slow down late morning around 10:30 a.m. That's a good time to come home, use the bathroom, let the dog out, get coffee and then decide if I'm going to go back out."
She appreciates that the platform collects the money, with no negotiation or chance to get stiffed. And she enjoys talking with passengers, many of whom treat her space as a "little confessional" for them to unburden their life stresses.
"Figuring out how to do it and make a livable wage, I find challenging," Donovan allows. "While I'm in this phase, I'm lucky to have a supportive partner."
Donovan plans to graduate from Inver Hills Community College in May and then apply to the digital forensics program at Metropolitan State University.
"For me it's been a really great experience. I've had so much fun, met so many cool people," she said. "I put all my cards on the table for this season of my life, for a minimum of two years. This is my option of being able to juggle and prioritize so that it all works."
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335 Twitter: @JackieCrosby