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How workers learn skills in the online platform economy, and how platforms, policies, and learning providers can support them

Published on
5 Nov 2020
Written by
Vili Lehdonvirta and Julian Albert

A growing number of Europeans are earning some or all of their income from work mediated through digital platforms. This includes platform-mediated online freelance work, also referred to as crowdwork or online gig work. In such work, self-employed workers provide services remotely for clients through platforms such as Fiverr, PeoplePerHour, and Upwork. Projects range from data entry to specialised software development and creative work.

In the CrowdLearn research project, we examined how these online freelancer workers develop their skills, and how online labour platforms match skills supply with demand. The aim was to seek lessons for European skills and education policy. The project was funded by European Centre for Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP). The project’s final report was recently published. In this post, we summarize some of the findings and their implications to policy makers, learning providers, and social partners.

The insights are based on a survey of 1,001 online freelancers in Europe, as well as on interviews with 77 online freelancers and 24 representatives of stakeholder organisations, such as platform owners, trade unions, learning providers, and policy makers.

Formal education still matters

To succeed in the online platform economy, workers need a range of skills and personal dispositions developed through formal education and vocational training. Our study revealed that self-regulatory learning skills are a fundamental skillset in crowdwork, as they are increasingly in all 21st-century jobs. Such skills include the ability to understand and identify changing skill requirements; to be proactive in seeking feed­back; and to be self-reflective and capable of changing one’s learning strategies when they are not working. Such skills are best developed before entering work­ing life. Therefore, even in the age of remote and platform-based work, both initial and continuing voca­tional education and training should focus on de­veloping peoples’ self-regulatory learning skills and capabilities.

Equipped with self-regulatory learning skills, successful online workers then learn new skills throughout their work. However, there is one category of skills in which they tend to experience less frequent on-the-job skill develop­ment: digital skills. Digital skills are mostly de­veloped before entry into platform work, not during it. In coun­tries where online platform work is less common, stakeholder interviewees argued that this was partly due to a lack of digital skills in the workforce. Continued focus on digital skills in vocational education is thus necessary if workers are to successfully access online and remote work opportunities.

Platform work is not a silver bullet for labour market integration

Platform-based work is often seen as a tool for labour market integration. For example, almost a third of online freelance workers surveyed in our study reported having an immigrant background. Yet newcomers to online work report having difficulties in getting started, because they lack a record of feedback from previous clients, which is the most important way of signalling skills and trustwor­thiness in platform-based work.

To address this barrier, we propose that policymakers and platforms could collaborate to experiment with subsidised ‘micro-internships’, in which clients are offered a discounted rate on new and untested workers in exchange for providing high-quality feedback on and to them.

Platform work as a tool for addressing youth unemployment comes with additional challenges. We found that successful online workers are typically highly educated and possess significant work experience in conventional employment prior to entering platform-based freelance work. Any platform-based interventions to tackle youth unemployment may thus be ineffective if the young workers lack opportunities to ac­cumulate relevant experience in conventional employment, or otherwise build up the skills and portfolio to attract clients. Initial education and training systems would need to invest significantly in improving young people’s digital literacy, their expertise in in-demand services, and their interpersonal skills. At the same time, any such programmes should also educate young people about the risks and challenges that freelance work entails.

Platforms, learning providers, and unions can take action

People who have successfully entered platform-based online freelance work find that continuous skills development is an essential part of their occupation. Two thirds of the online workers surveyed reported develop­ing their professional skills and technical skills on at least a weekly basis. In online freelancing platforms, as in most workplac­es, learning needs are closely intertwined with performance goals and driven by clients’ needs and requirements.

However, training courses offered by conventional learning providers as well as by massive open online courses (MOOCs) tend to be too long and too broad for freelance workers, and tend to cover too many introductory-level skills. To meet online workers’ learning needs, adult learning providers could develop short, focused, ‘just-in-time’ online learning resources. Online freelancers are willing to invest time and money in developing skills which immediately help them solve prob­lems in their current project, or help them expand the range of new projects for which they can bid.

Social partners also have a role in fostering such continuing education and training. Trade unions can draw on their existing resources and partnerships to extend training opportunities to freelance workers.

A simple and effective action that platform companies can immediately take to support workers’ continuous skill develop­ment is to guide clients to give developmental and formative feed­back to the workers they engage, instead of only evaluative feedback meant to help the next client.

The CrowdLearn research project was a collaboration between the Oxford Internet Institute, Copenhagen Business School (Professor Anoush Margaryan) and CEDEFOP. Read the project’s final report for more insights and recommendations on online platform work and skills development.

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