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BLS measures contingent workforce for first time in 12 years; what they found

June 07, 2018

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics measured the size of the contingent workforce for the first time in 12 years, and released the data today. It found contingent workers accounted for a smaller percent of the US workforce. However, the data also tracked independent contractors, temporary agency workers and more.

Using three different measures, contingent workers represented between 1.3% to 3.8% of total employment in May 2017, the month under measure.

That compared to between 1.8% and 4.1% in February 2005, the last time the BLS measured the contingent workforce.

Contingent workers are defined as “those who do not have an implicit or explicit contract for ongoing employment,” according to the BLS. The data did not include people who expect to end their jobs for personal reasons such as retirement or returning to school.

In total, 5.9 million people in the US held contingent jobs.

The BLS also measured workers in “alternative work arrangements” that includes independent contractor, temporary help agency workers, on-call workers and workers provided by contract firms. However, the BLS measured contingent work and alternative work arrangements separately. Some workers are both contingent and working in an alternate arrangement, but that is not automatically the case.

The BLS also asked workers about using mobile apps or websites to find jobs, but that data does not appear in this release.

“It’s important to remember that the BLS study is based on the perspective of the worker,” said Tony Gregoire, director of research, the Americas, at Staffing Industry Analysts.

“For instance, in the BLS study not all independent contractors are classified as contingent, because they may expect their job to last,” Gregoire said. “For the same reason, once BLS releases results regarding ‘gig’ workers, some ‘gig’ workers may expect their ‘gig’ to last (they may expect to be an Uber driver five years now, even if the customers/passengers change). From the client’s perspective, independent contractors and ‘gig’ are typically contingent, and thus an estimate of contingent work from the client’s perspective would be greater than that of the BLS study, which is based on the worker’s perspective.”

In its own review of the BLS data, the American Staffing Association questioned the results, citing its own data that showed increases in the temporary and contract workforce.

“Rather than bring clarity in sizing the gig economy, the BLS study raises questions because it’s inconsistent with ASA industry data that show significant growth in flexible work arrangements,” said Steve Berchem, ASA chief operating officer. “Puzzlingly, this study shows no change for over a decade.”

Among the BLS’ findings released today:

  • Independent contractors were the most numerous workers in alternative work arrangements, with 10.6 million independent contractors representing 6.9% of total employment in May 2017. The BLS defines independent contractors as “workers who are identified as independent contractors, independent consultants or freelance workers regardless of whether they are self-employed or wage and salary workers.”
  • On-call workers numbered 2.6 million and represented 1.7% of total employment. These workers are called into work only when needed but can be scheduled to work for several days or weeks in a row.
  • There were 1.4 million temporary help agency workers, or 0.9% of total employment. These are workers who work through a temporary employment agency whether or not their job is temporary.
  • And there were 933,000 workers provided by contract firms for 0.6% of total employment. These include “workers who are employed by a company that provides them or their services to others under contract, are usually assigned to only one customer and usually work at the customer’s worksite.”

The BLS also highlighted several points from the data:

  • Contingent workers were more than twice as likely as noncontingent workers to be under age 25. They were also more than twice as likely as traditional workers to work part time.
  • Young contingent workers — 16- to 24-year-olds — were much more likely than their noncontingent counterparts to be enrolled in school, 62% and 36% respectively.
  • Contingent workers were more likely to work in professional and related occupations and in construction and extraction occupations than noncontingent workers.
  • More than half of contingent workers, 55%, would have preferred a permanent job.
  • Full-time contingent workers had median weekly earnings of $685 compared to $886 for noncontingent workers.
  • Compared to workers in traditional arrangements, independent contractors were more likely to be older, temporary help agency workers were more likely to be black or Hispanic or Latino, and workers provided by contract companies were more likely to be men.
  • While 79% of independent contractors preferred their arrangement over a traditional job, only 44% of on-call workers and 39% of temporary help agency workers preferred their work arrangement.

Further coverage of this data is planned.

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