Gigs and projects

In this very strange moment in the world, it may be difficult to land long term employment if you have just lost your job or graduated from school.

Relatively short term projects or gigs, as they are typically called, can be a very effective way to buy some time between leaving one job, for whatever reason, and finding the one you really want. Beyond this idea of using this kind of work as a bridge or a stop gap measure, many people have adopted the model as their permanent form of working.

In a number of other professions, it has been normal for people to move from project to project and perhaps never really have a “permanent” job or position. Such projects, or assignments typically last anywhere from a few months to a few years based on the length of the overall project and the role of the individual.

In the 1930’s and early 1940’s Directors and Actors were on permanent contracts with the Hollywood’s leading movies studios before films became more of a temporary or project to project business.. Humphrey Bogart, for example, made a number of films for Warner Brothers before the contract system was phased out in the late 1940s and replaced by the current practice of hiring actors on a free lance bases. 

Besides actors, virtually the entire production and editing crew of a modern motion picture is made up of temporary people and outsourced firms which in turn hire the artistic and technical people required.

There has been a similar pool of talent in the automotive business for many years. It takes several hundred engineers to design a new car in addition to the thousands of people involved in the design and manufacture of the thousands of components that are out sourced to specialized companies in that business. 

Most of the major car companies deliberately employ significantly less engineers than they need in order to assure a steady work flow for the ones on staff. When the company is working on number of new models at the same time, they tap into the network of engineers and designers who move around the industry from project to project.

There is also a branch of the executive search business, called interim management, which deals with short terms assignments for Senior Executives. Such positions often have to do with specific tasks like opening or closing a manufacturing plant or implementing a specific project or program. 

I know a number of people who have been doing such assignments for years, typically for 18 months or so in each position. They typically get paid 20-30% more than they would make in a full time role but the company also saves money in the long run as it only needs their specialized experience for a relatively short time.

Daniel Pink,  and others have written extensively about how this idea is now being extended to even broader parts of the Economy. This phenomena, that Pink wrote about almost 20 years ago in Free Agent Nation is now typically referred to as the gig economy.

As discussed by Louis Hyman in Temp, temporary working arrangements have been increasing since the 1960’s and represent fundamental shift in the way the economy works works in the United States and a number of other countries.

These two writers illustrate two sides to the phenomenon. Pink foresaw how the trend would develop and celebrates the freedom and flexibility it gives people. Hyamn, however, sees it as a negative result of an overzealous focus on shareholders by american companies and a way to essentially avoid giving people stability and benefits while still getting the fruit of their labor.

In the last few years it has been particularly associated with relatively new spaces such as games design, software developers, and even newer fields such as cybersecurity and data mining. It has also been extended to new and fast growing roles in the peer to peer service business such as driving for Uber or Lyft or charging electric scooters for Lime or Bird.

Regardless of whether you are interested in one of spaces in which roles have been project based for years or are interested in one of the new, emerging parts of the economy, projects and gigs can be very rewarding but do have a downside that needs to be well understood.

I will discuss both the up and down side of such work in another post, especially in the aftermath of SARS-Cov-2. They key point I want to make in this post, however, is that while you are waiting the world to get back to normal – if it ever will – doing such short term projects may be a great way to keep bread on the table or explore a new combination of space, place and role.

In terms of the overall narrative or story line of your professional development, you may not want to take a permanent job that could be interpreted as a step backward in terms of money or responsibility. On the other hand, it might be perfectly ok to say that while I was looking for this and that, I decided to help my fried or family accomplish some specific task.

Going back to the idea of what we really need discussed in the last post, you may find that such work is actually very rewarding and that the nature of it or its flexibility is really what you want in the first place.

Published by Mike R

I am a professor at IESE Business School and lecture on strategy, sustainability and geo-politics.

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