Very often these days, when a tech leader is asked how the government could help people adapt to the "gig economy," the answer is frustratingly basic.
"It’s crazy that we’re having this debate with 10-year-old data," Marco Zappacosta, chief executive of a platform called Thumbtack, said at an event a few weeks ago. "We need to know what the trends are, because I think it would show that it’s a much bigger phenomenon than tech."
Zappacosta was referring to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Contingent Worker Survey, which used to take stock of temporary jobs every two years but which hasn't been conducted since 2005.
"That data is totally worthless," agreed Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) at the same event, before suggesting that perhaps tech companies themselves could share some information to help size the independent workforce. "We don’t know if it’s 3 million or 53 million -- that’s the sort of bid and the ask. The one thing we do know is that it’s growing exponentially."
In the absence of fresh government data, a few private groups have stepped in to estimate how big this "gig economy" thing actually is. The Freelancers Union, which advocates for self-employed people of all kinds, recently came up with the 53 million number Warner mentioned. MBO Partners, which provides tools for businesses that use contractors, put it at 30.2 million. But for lawmaking purposes, it's probably a good idea to get your information from a source that doesn't have a commercial interest in the numbers it's putting out.
Government agencies are often slow to adapt to how the real economy changes. In this case, though, the people in the government who collect data are intensely conscious of the fact that they're not even asking the right questions anymore. That's important, because knowing who's doing what kind of work is essential for figuring out how benefits programs or enforcement priorities need to change to make sure people are protected.
Right now, for example, the purported rise of the gig economy isn't even showing up in official numbers. The number of people who are self-employed or who hold multiple jobs hasn't risen appreciably in recent years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Internal Revenue Service numbers do show that income from workers who use 1099 tax forms is increasing.
"I do think there’s a puzzle right now with the data," says Heidi Shierholz, chief economist of the Department of Labor, whose job it is to figure these kinds of things out.
So what's going on? Well, either the media frenzy around Uber and Handy-type jobs is overblown, and this workforce isn't actually that big. Or, perhaps, our data collection methods aren't well-equipped to recognize it.
For example, if a worker has a traditional job and puts in more hours doing the same kind of work on an on-demand platform, they might not self-report that on a government survey as a separate job. "If you had a job being an editor during the day and a waiter at night, you’re very clear that those are two different jobs," Shierholz says. "Whereas if you’re an editor during the day and doing some Taskrabbit stuff at night, you might not."
So even if the government did restart the kind of data collection that was supposed to assess the prevalence of gig work, it might not be well-equipped to do so. "That Contingent Worker Survey was developed at a time where it’s not going to be capturing some of the concepts that we need to capture now," Shierholz says.
Another element of the modern workplace that isn't measured is the concept of schedule instability and on-call shifts, which some states and cities have already started to regulate because it's seen as so difficult for low-wage workers to deal with. Shierholz thinks the American Time Use Survey could be enhanced to get a better read on how many people face that sort of challenge.
Here's another idea, which has been kicked around internally at the Bureau of Labor Statistics: Ask companies to report all the kinds of employment arrangements they maintain, from contractors to part-timers to temp workers to full-time employees, so we can study the importance of that kind of work in the economy.
"What we don’t currently have is a simple accounting of all of the various types of worker arrangements that firms are using to produce output or provide services such as freelancers, independent contractors and even gig workers," says Michael Horrigan, the BLS' associate commissioner for employment and unemployment statistics. "BLS does count the number of employees at temporary help service agencies, however, it does not have detail on how many of these employees are placed at which industries."
Of course, there are always challenges with inventing new data sets -- economists like continuity, so things can be measured over time. "There’s this constant tension between needing a time series and at the same time capturing new concepts," Shierholz says. "When you make that break, that’s a problem for researchers because they want to see how things evolve over time on a conceptually similar basis."
But at this point, change might be unavoidable. So later this year, the arms of the government that collect data on the workforce -- the Commerce Department, IRS, Department of Labor, Small Business Administration and more -- are getting together with researchers, advocates and technologists for a three-day "Structure of Work Symposium" to talk about how to get up to speed.
"It is the Department of Labor taking very seriously the fact that things are evolving, and we need our government statistical agencies to be able to capture it," Shierholz says.
Of course, new data collection takes money, and thanks to Congress' failure to fund the BLS' budget requests, they've so far been unable to make it happen.