The gig economy

Nov 14, 2016

From job to job and firm to firm, all with the push of a button on a mobile app. Is that the future for the design industry? There’s plenty out there who sure hope so.

I’ve had an opportunity to work in the design industry in each of the last three decades, and I’m amazed at all the changes that have taken place since the mid ‘90s.

Recruiting was a lot different back in the day. We spent a lot of time putting ads in newspapers and magazines, making calls to lists of people that we found either through the PE or AIA, or just calling into reputed firms. Then, electronic job boards and Google came along making searching for talent a little bit easier. Nowadays we have LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter, Indeed, and more than just a little bit of information overload. Ironically, even with so much at hand, today’s recruiting requires very little – a smartphone, a great search parameter, and enough time to reach out to people via email, cell, or text message.

The thing that amazes me is that there’s so much new technology out there changing the way we do all kinds of things, from hailing a cab to ordering fast food to finding vacation rentals. That type of technology is getting better every day, too.

I believe sharing workers will be the next big opportunity in the design industry. I’m wondering what it will be like for firms to hire talent on an as-needed basis as opposed to having extra people on staff hoping that the next big project comes in to keep everyone busy.

As recruiters, oftentimes the firms we work with want to hire great talent but are concerned for the long-term. The balancing act of keeping the right amount of staff for the workload is stressful. How common is it that you propose your services on a project thinking, “If we get this job, we’ll have to hire some new people quickly.”

Imagine your firm is making proposals on several projects that you helped to bring in. You think you have the internal capacity to get the job done, and the projects are entirely within your design wheelhouse. Your only concern is if all these projects happen at once, you might not have the manpower to do the work. It sounds like a great problem to have, but you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew and overload your current staff. This is where the potential of the gig economy in the design industry comes in.

Many of you have used Uber in the past few years. Technically, Uber is an app, accessible from your smart phone, that aggregates all available drivers in a given area that are willing to drive you to your destination. It’s a tool that works well. I never think twice about calling an Uber. I usually tap a few icons on my smartphone, punch up the Uber app and within five or 10 minutes I’m taken to my next appointment. I get a clean car, usually with a water bottle in the backseat, and a quick – and hopefully uneventful – trip to my next destination. Ten years ago I would have never imagined this type of service being available to me for any reason. Now we take Uber for granted. It’s an indispensable tool.

Now back to the gig and Bitcoin profit economy. Take that same Uber-like process and place it firmly in the design industry. All the different types of cars, Uber, UberBlack, UberXL, etc., are replaced with project engineer, project architect, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, planner, landscape architect – you fill in the blank. Imagine a program or app that aggregates this kind of talent and based on your need sends you only the people that are actively looking to do temp work, on-call work, contractors, or freelancers. All this talent has been vetted, and there is even social proof based on the feedback they’ve received from other firms they’ve worked with in the past.

That’s what the gig economy is all about, folks. And for those of you who are not familiar with this definition, I found an excellent explanation at

“A gig economy is an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements. The trend toward a gig economy has begun. A study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of American workers would be independent contractors. There are many forces behind the rise in short-term jobs. For one thing, in this digital age, the workforce is increasingly mobile, and work can increasingly be done from anywhere so that job and location are decoupled. That means that freelancers can select among temporary jobs and projects around the world, while employers can select the best individuals for specific projects from a larger pool than that available in any given area.”

There are other programs that embody this idea. and are two that have been around for awhile and have proven to work pretty well. I suspect that even in the design industry, for those owners out there that are so persnickety about the people that they hire, there will even be something they can soon use that will afford them the opportunity to co-opt great talent for determined periods of time. I think about some of the specialties in our industry like MEP engineers, planners, landscape architects and wonder, “What if I could pull up an app that had some of these individuals just a few keystrokes away?”

I believe that’s what the future holds for talent acquisition in the design industry. If you look at the economy now, and you look at some of the uncertainty in the job marketplace coupled with the millennial workforce mindset, you have to acknowledge that change is coming. There is a generation of graduates who were raised from the bottle on a smartphone or a computer. They live their lives now with 24/7 access to any information they need, and the constant churn of social media. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that lots of these guys are picking up their phones and looking for the next great opportunity. It’s happening now!

So what will it look like for your firm? Try this.

It’s 2018, and you have a newly minted, high achieving architecture graduate who would love to work in New York, and they want to experience what it’s like to work at a high-level design firm, but he or she also wants to travel. Imagine a firm like Robert A.M. Stern Architects, or Peter Pennoyer Architects, offering opportunities to work on great projects even for entry-level architects. Maybe the project lasts for six to 12 months. Maybe longer. The young architect gets to work for a set period on a particular project. Once the project is over, the architect can add the experience to his or her online job profile and either move on to the next exciting project or take some needed time off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro – or volunteer at an orphanage in India. Anything is possible.

It’s not that firms will no longer hire full-time, long-term employees. That won’t go away. But a segment of our society will gravitate toward the ability to go from assignment to assignment, project to project, firm to firm, and not be encumbered by having to stay in one place – all while not being stigmatized by jumping from one job to another.

If all the predictions are correct, then we have a lot of work to do to prepare for the future of employment in the design industry. You might ask yourself, “Why would these young people want to do that and give up the safety of a job?” But that is the wrong question to ask. The real question is, “How do I make my firm attractive to this talent pool that’s coming out of school in the next three to five years?”

There’s a new generation of talent that’s coming our way, and they’re thinking, acting, and doing things differently than we did when we graduated back in the Stone Age. There will be programs and apps out there that will help this next generation define how and when they work. It’s up to us to figure out a way to embrace this technology.

Change is good and we can’t be afraid of it!

I recognize that this article will cause readers to fall on one side of the argument or the other. If you are a firm leader, I would love to get your feedback on this topic. I have pulled together one of the shortest surveys on record to get your thoughts on using new technology to make the temporary or contract recruiting process more efficient.


Please take a minute to participate. And thanks in advance. As always, if you want to talk about this or any other HR/recruitment topic, please email me.

Randy Wilburn is Zweig Group’s director of executive search. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1172 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here to subscribe or get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.