Almost half of all tertiary teaching in Canada is done by PhDs on short-term, casual contracts. Photo: Stockphoto

Make ‘insecure’ employment work for you

Wednesday, 13 June, 2018 - 09:52

For the first time ever, less than half of all working Australians hold a ‘standard job’, according to a new report from the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work.

The report, ‘The Dimensions of Insecure Work’, defines a standard job as one that is permanent and full-time.

However, while the standard job seems endangered, self-employment is on the rise.

In Australia, self-employment made up 18 per cent of total employment last year, according to the Future Work report.

But the report doesn’t mention a growing trend of people who are embracing a new way of working – what’s being called the ‘portfolio career’.

And it offers a potential way forward for today’s young people, many who view the standard job as obsolete.

The problem

Based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data from 2012 to 2017, the Future Work report provides statistical evidence for what those aged in their 20s and 30s have anecdotally experienced for years – it feels like no-one has a ‘job’ anymore.

There’s an increasing move towards the casualisation (as a cost-saving measure) of positions that are really full-time, permanent roles.

Take for example the tertiary education sector, where in countries such as Canada almost half of all teaching is done by PhDs on short-term, casual contracts that get renewed every three months for years on end.

And of course the gig economy, led by companies such as Uber, bases its revenue models on replacing employees with contractors who are paid less, without job security or benefits.

Portfolio career

Somewhere in there among a job, self-employment and a startup sits the portfolio career.

It’s a way of working that involves what I describe as a collection of ‘micro jobs’, or a combination of projects.

Working in this way not only offers increased flexibility and autonomy for portfolio career workers, it provides an alternative strategy for dealing with the increasing job insecurity in more standard roles as identified by the Centre of Future Work.

Pia Turcinov, the chair of Women in Technology WA, non-executive director of a number of organisations and a self-described manager of a portfolio career, said working in this way meant individuals needn’t rely on a single channel of revenue.

“Instead you have multiple sources of income from multiple sources of activity,” she said, adding that if you lost one, you simply looked for another, or ramped-up work in the other channels.

I work this way, and this column is part of my portfolio.

It’s a style that evolved naturally for me as both a response to increasing job insecurity in my regular work, but also as my preferred working style.

Just squeaking in as a millennial, I have never had a job for longer than three years, have had multiple ‘careers’ and have almost always had a side hustle (the millennial term for a part-time side job or project).

Shifting to a portfolio career has actually given me much more freedom, security and even enjoyment from the projects I work on.

Ms Turcinov echoes this sentiment, saying she kept getting bored in regular employment situations.

“I can choose where I get my intellectual stimulation.

I don’t have to work with anyone in this circumstance; I only work on things I can add value to,” she said.

Challenges and benefits

As portfolio careers become more common, employers will also need to adapt.

Andy Lamb is another who has a portfolio career – he organises events, delivers workshops and keynote addresses, and advises around innovation and cultural change.

Mr Lamb said employers currently did a lot to keep their employees happy and engaged, via performance reviews, career advancement tracks and the like.

However, these structures would become too rigid for the evolving workforce, he said.

“The big thing for employers is going to be how you attract good people who don’t fit into the traditional approach,” Mr Lamb said.

And the value was not just for employees, but also employers.

“Working in different ways for different people increases my value proposition to each of my clients,” Mr Lamb said.

Ms Turcinov noted this as well, saying that she was able to offer all her clients a transferability of knowledge from different lenses across different projects.

Perhaps most exciting was the potential portfolio careers offered in supporting workforce diversity.

Ms Turcinov said the current landscape offered an extraordinary opportunity, especially for women in terms of workforce flexibility.

One of the reasons she chose to switch to a portfolio career was she was: “Tired of asking permission as a working mother, asking permission to do things like seeing my kids.”

As for the future of education, this is the way of working we need to prepare young people for.

Much more than just teaching them to code, we need to foster the skills needed for portfolio careers – communication, self-motivation, critical thinking and, of course, life-long learning.