Economy Watch: Gig Economy Might Not be as Large as Believed

A new Bureau of Labor Statistics report casts some doubt on the size and growth trajectory of contingent jobs, which might have implications for the U.S. office market.

In May, 3.8 percent of U.S. workers—5.9 million people—held “contingent jobs,” as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reported the number late last week. These contingent workers are people who don’t expect their jobs to last or who report that their jobs are temporary.

The bureau’s report has cast some doubt on the size and growth trajectory of the gig economy, which might in turn have implications for the U.S. office market. Using three different metrics, contingent workers accounted for 1.3 percent to 3.8 percent of total employment in May. In February 2005, the last time the BLS did this survey, all three metrics were higher, ranging from 1.8 percent to 4.1 percent of employment.

In addition to contingent workers, the survey also identified workers who have various alternative work arrangements. In May 2017, there were 10.6 million independent contractors (6.9 percent of total employment), 2.6 million on-call workers (1.7 percent of total employment), 1.4 million temporary help agency workers (0.9 percent of total employment), and 933,000 workers provided by contract firms (0.6 percent of total employment).

The bureau also said that contingent workers were distributed throughout the major occupational groups. Nearly one-third of contingent workers employed in professional and related occupations—those that tend to use office space—compared with one-fourth of noncontingent workers.

However, contingent workers were less likely than noncontingent workers to be employed in management, business, and financial operations occupations (8 percent and 17 percent, respectively), all of which also tend to take office space. Finally, contingent workers were also more likely than their noncontingent counterparts to work in construction occupations (11 percent, respectively).