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Skill development and continuing learning in the online gig economy

New Cedefop research deepens our understanding of how platform workers improve their skills and make use of online economy opportunities.

Online platform work, where internet-based platforms bring together people from across the world to carry out tasks, has emerged in recent decades as a new form of employment. Estimates point out that over 1 in 10 EU workers has engaged in it. Driven by advances in digitalisation, a growing need for flexibility and efforts to overcome time and income constraints, the platform work business model shows future potential. The ongoing coronavirus crisis, however, has highlighted the vulnerability of workers in precarious gig work, making online platform work a hot topic in the policy and public discourse on the future of work.

Types of online platform work

Although crowdsourced work practices are diverse, two key types are microwork and online freelancing. In contrast to online freelancing (OF), which usually comprises more complex, high-skilled projects and activities (e.g. graphic, software and architectural design, data analytics, marketing services, legal advice), projects in microwork (MW) are outsourced to crowdwork platforms by clients and are broken down into small units of work for crowdworkers to carry out for pay. Microtasks – such as image tagging, data entry, social media sentiment ratings, survey execution, transcription, etc. – can typically be completed in seconds or minutes and require basic computer literacy. Such tasks are usually monitored by algorithms rather than humans, in an emergent mode of work supervision termed ‘algorithmic management’. There has been a recent surge in the use of microwork in processing big data sets for training machine learning algorithms underpinning artificial intelligence (AI).

Developing skills in microwork

In 2017-19, Cedefop’s first CrowdLearn study examined how OF platform workers engage in workplace learning, skill formation and skills matching. In spring 2020, Cedefop conducted an internationally first-of-its-kind complementary survey of 1 004 microworkers from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – one of the most popular microwork platforms. These data were matched with the original OF sample to analyse workers’ tasks, learning practices, skill development and personal motivations for engaging in platform work.

The second Cedefop study found that microworkers do not tend to rely on platform work as a primary source of income, in contrast to online freelancers, although it can be a viable option for a secondary income in volatile times, especially for younger adult populations (e.g. students).

Findings also suggest the potential of microwork for reintegrating marginalised groups (e.g. retired, disabled, unemployed) into the labour market, by lowering entry barriers and offering more effective skills-matching channels. In the combined CrowdLearn sample, microworkers generally report high levels of enjoyment while completing their tasks.

As with online freelancers, the CrowdLearn microworker study stresses the critical importance of self-regulatory learning (SRL) skills for platform work. Workers need a baseline level of SRL skills to plan, implement and evaluate their own learning and engage in skills development that helps them find better-paid and stimulating tasks, understand the complex platforms interfaces, workflows and rules and identify trustworthy clients. This is reflected in our findings (Figure 1) on the most notable skills microworkers develop while performing platform work: ‘skills in obtaining work on platforms’ (61%), ‘skills in being an online worker’ (60%) and ‘analytical skills’ (58%).

Figure 1: Skill development of platform workers

In stark contrast to online freelancers, the least frequently developed skill by microworkers is ‘communication skills’ (26%), which can be attributed to the fragmented nature of microwork and the bare-bones communication between task requesters and workers, mediated through minimalist platform features. The study cautions that many microworkers perceive their tasks as repetitive and monotonous and fail to reflect on how their work can foster continuing skill accumulation and a positive career trajectory (Figure 2). Some 48% of microworkers frequently consider how their learning will be useful to them in ‘future jobs’, as opposed to 76% of online freelancers.

Figure 2: Nature of tasks in crowdwork

Policies for online platform work

The study highlights the potential role of microwork as a viable avenue for labour market integration, income supplementation and skills upgrading opportunities for workers who tend to underutilise their skills. Policies supporting microwork (e.g. for furloughed workers) could be a step in the right direction, particularly as the EU is called to face the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Policy actions may include awareness campaigns to increase participation and engagement in microwork, building worker-centric platforms to serve specific needs, and fostering healthy relationships between actors involved. Policy-makers, however, need to make a balanced assessment of the opportunities and challenges of crowdwork (such as labour market segmentation, ambiguous employment status, skill underutilisation, high work intensity, lower or erratic pay). They should also continue to promote good practices and experiences from crowdwork platforms with a social mission, such as those providing work opportunities to low-income/low-skilled workers while at the same time offering digital or other types of upskilling.     

Stay tuned for the release of Cedefop’s new report ‘Skill development in the online gig or platform economy: comparing microwork and online freelancing’ and the relevant conference scheduled to take place at the end of 2021!