Irregular Work for the 21st Century: a Model from Britain?

Since 2005, the UK government has both nurtured and opposed an innovative model of irregular blue-collar work. It uses sophisticated marketplace technologies to create a platform on which anyone can be available to “work when you can for multiple employers.” It is possible a similar model could take up significant slack in the U.S. labor market. But, as on this side of the Atlantic, there is likely to be ambivalence.

Our story starts with data. Research[i] commissioned by the government showed 13.7 million people in the UK — 22% of our population — who need odd hours of blue-collar work at some point each year. They include carers of dependent adults, those with unpredictable medical conditions, parents with complex childcare arrangements and the partially employed.

Individuals in these groups often can’t fit a job — full or part time — around their commitments. But they could work odd hours on a day-to-day basis. Further research showed the labor market — and support mechanisms for work seekers — were astonishingly intolerant of these people. That compounded what were already often unusually hard lives. Because they had little chance of entering a job, this target pool attracted no attention from employers or employment agencies.

But they clearly wanted to work. A representative 1,000 in East London were shown a system that could meet their needs. It could allow anyone to say what their skills where, the criteria on which they would accept work bookings (how far they would travel from home, how much notice they needed, and so on), and the exact hours they were available (today, tomorrow or weeks ahead). Their hours of availability could be booked by any employer within their rules. 68%[ii] said they wanted to give it a go, preferring it to part time work for a single organization even if that employer could be as flexible as they needed.

On the demand side, the same reports found about 20% of employers could use a pool of “top up” workers from which people could be booked on demand at a time they were available. Such employers included retailers, caterers, distribution companies, call centers, the leisure and tourism sector, events organizers and those providing services such as home care, security and cleaning. These organizations could benefit from access to pools of very local, proven reliable, individuals who could be booked willingly at short notice or for short-term requirements. A hotel, for example, could put 15 ad hoc workers through a paid orientation. From that point on, they would have extra kitchen assistants who could be called in for an unexpected mealtime rush.

Launching the new market

The system those East Londoners were shown was progressively made real. It’s called CEDAH (Central Database of Available Hours). The funding came from multiple parts of central and local government. Small scale pilot tests were launched around the UK. The extent of public enthusiasm for this new facility was overwhelming. Residents of one London borough had 18,000 hours of availability in the first week of the program. But the demand side was slower to emerge with employers typically hanging back to let the local market get through its first few months before committing. Too often, by that point, citizens had found their hours weren’t being booked, lost faith in the program and walked away.

It was while this imbalance in supply and early stage demand was becoming clear that the various CEDAH projects (which went under many different names at the time) came onto the radar of DWP, the UK’s ministry of labor. Frequently criticized for lack of innovation, DWP had not been involved in the launch or funding of CEDAH. The ministry initially expressed skepticism about the program: they said it did nothing to create jobs, and possibly even detracted from job creation. They also expressed concern about linking the newer technology behind the available-hours marketplace to DWP’s own systems[iii].

The “it doesn’t create jobs” critique dogged the CEDAH projects for years. The similar failings of other successive high profile job support programs had little impact. Government simply doubled down. UK taxpayers now spend some £5bn a year[iv] ($8bn) on blue-collar job creation. The flagship programme was reported in 2013 to only be moving 3.5% of candidates into sustainable employment[v]

Because blue-collar employment policy is so welded to fostering traditional jobs, it is difficult for irregular work to take off. Public sector bodies are, in aggregate, potentially the biggest buyers of irregular work in a developed economy. Pools of on-demand, vetted, oriented, local people can be a better way to deliver all sorts of public and support services. But the existing government on-ramps for employment — driven by narrow targets for conventional full-time work — sidelines all sorts of people who through no fault of their own can’t be available or successful in a traditional job.

Evolving need for irregular work

I oversaw the CEDAH projects for government. Increasingly I learned what life is like for those forced to the labor market margins. I recall a single mother in her 30’s whose son was disabled. She was distraught because employer after employer had let her go after realizing she had to prioritize her son’s therapy treatment, hospital appointments and unpredictable bad days. I met a caregiver in his 50’s whose life revolved around two parents with Alzheimer’s disease, and who longed for meaningful employment. At times, both would have made excellent contributors to irregular work needs in their communities.

And I learned about people who can’t get a toehold in an employment market that lacks granularity. One young woman called our office in tears. She had applied for unskilled jobs for years, but either been overlooked or lost out at interview because of social awkwardness. Being booked, along with 5 others, to move filing boxes for an afternoon during an office move was life changing. It allowed her to start demonstrating reliability, which attracted other bookings and a slowly burgeoning range of experiences, skills and employer contacts.

So we persisted. In 2011 there was a breakthrough. The DWP, under new political control, did a U-turn in favor of odd-hours working for the partially employed or those who can’t get a job[vi]. But the government technology has been slow to modernize and we are still waiting to connect to it.

In the meantime, the need for irregular work has evolved beyond a core of citizens who have pressing life commitments around which they want to work. We are seeing three forces that are driving ad hoc blue-collar earnings up the agenda:

  • Jobs are diminishing; if not always in quantity, then in quality. The UK government has termed this “hollowing out”[vii]. Increasingly, blue-collar employment is insecure, unrewarding, unskilled and uncertain in the hours it actually offers[viii]. Underemployment appears to be increasing[ix]. Automation looms[x]. Many who would previously have been seeking a career are now simply aspiring to whatever work they can get.
  • Irregular work options are expanding, often in the shadow economy. Websites like taskrabbit[xi] (run errands around your neighbourhood), AirBnB[xii] (rent your sofa to strangers) and Fiverr[xiii] (perform tasks for $5) are growing rapidly. They typically leave tax arrangements to the individual. Data suggests it is often not declared[xiv].
  • Devolution of employment policy. Possibly because spending on job creation has not always delivered as hoped, cities, regions and states around Europe and the US are pursuing their own initiatives. Seattle’s recent unilateral hike in the minimum wage is one example[xv]. It is increasingly likely a bold city or regional government could lead the way into a 21st Century model for ad hoc work.

These forces seem to be increasing interest in our work. With Britain still tepid about anything that doesn’t shout politicians’ commitment to “job creation” we are in early stage dialogue with the Irish government, as well as with India and Canada. But all our thinking leads to the US. America has a hugely flexible labor market. That factor often counts against the interests of workers. But it could help with establishing a model of irregular work for the 21st Century.

Insights for America

I would offer the following provocative thoughts from our work that could be worth examining for America:

  • There is enormous untapped demand for irregular work. Research in the UK endorsed by anti-poverty advocates at the Rowntree Foundation estimates £100m ($160m) of demand for these bookings goes unmet every day because current markets are so inefficient[xvi]. The US economy is 5.5 times the size of that of the UK. If the dynamics are constant, that’s $321bn a year of income waiting to flow to the base of the American pyramid. These figures are hard to authenticate because so much irregular work is in the shadow economy.
    But anecdotal evidence abounds. As you read this there will be food outlets bracing for a mealtime rush, shops anticipating weather related foot traffic and call centers bracing for an influx of calls. Any of them could be willing to pay for a few top-up workers for a few hours if they knew those people were reliable, very local, already oriented, available at the lowest overheads and bookable in a few seconds. Transacting has to become as effortless as possible to release the most demand.
  • Current websites are not good enough. Most current sites for irregular labor are nicely designed and aggressively marketed but typically offer little more than searchable lists of buyers and/or sellers. A better marketplace is needed. Actually arranging a transaction is still too often time-consuming, overhead-laden and uncertain. Selling your time for more than one type of work often involves syncing your profile on multiple incompatible sites. No-one has meaningful data on patterns of demand/supply/pricing for their services in their locality.
    Irregular work should be seen as one big market covering all sorts of skills and services. But booking has to be genuinely one-click easy, low overhead and reliable. And everyone needs to see where their evolving opportunities are across this vast tier of the labor market.
  • Irregular work can be preferable to a job for many. It’s not just the core who never know when they are able to work; if your formal employment consists of being called in as required to parrot approved phrases while following instructions from a computer, you may hanker for something more empowering.
    Perhaps a CEDAH platform could show reasonable demand for your various skills and enthusiasms, around you home, from multiple employers at times you would be willing to work? The opportunity to build a track record of engagement with diverse employers on your terms might outweigh the waning benefits of being attached to one employer on their terms.   
  • Government intervention may be justified. Government already intervenes massively in the job market. Why not in irregular work? If it can lift citizens out of poverty and improve the efficiency of businesses, might it merit the same treatment? Governments, at city or state level, have all sorts of facilities that could underpin state-of-the-art markets for irregular work. These levers need to be pulled.

One lesson above all should be clear: there is a pressing need to make irregular work more accessible, rewarding and legitimate. The quality of market for these complex, nuanced, low value transactions is pivotal. Irregular work markets need huge scale to slash overheads, maximize opportunities and unleash all possible demand. That can’t happen until employment policy moves beyond jobs. The pressure to do so is building. Ensuring people who need or want to work this way can do so may be one way to pull in a lot of the slack that is continuing to drag down the US labor market.


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Filed Under: The Economy, jobs