UML’s Labor Education Program Explores Gig Economy and Automation

a stock image of a woman walking toward an arrow Image by Adobe Stock
The UMass Lowell Labor Education Program explored how students can prepare for the future of work at “The Gig Economy, Automation and You,” a recent panel discussion at O'Leary Library.

By Ed Brennen

Even with a double major in economics and American studies, senior Madeline Hertz figures she’ll one day be among the nearly 57 million Americans – or 36 percent of the U.S. workforce – taking part in the gig economy.

“If I want to afford an apartment in Boston and live the kind of lifestyle that I want, I will more than likely need to supplement my income with side work,” the Andover native says.

That being the case, Hertz has a keen interest in how to better protect nontraditional gig workers – one of the topics covered at a recent panel discussion, “The Gig Economy, Automation and You,” hosted by UMass Lowell’s Labor Education Program at O’Leary Library.

Moderated by Assoc. Prof. Mignon Duffy, chair of the Sociology Department, the panel featured Scott Latham, an associate professor of management in the Manning School of Business, and Thomas Kochan, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.

The discussion, which drew close to 100 students, faculty and community members, explored how freelance workers are shaping the workforce, how artificial intelligence and automation are changing the nature of employment and what students can do to prepare for the future.

“Students were initially really excited about the gig economy, thinking, ‘I want to be my own boss,’” says Elizabeth Pellerito, coordinator of the Labor Education Program. “That sounds great, but they’re not seeing the full picture of what that looks like.”

students listen to the panel discussion Image by Ed Brennen
Senior Madeline Hertz, second from left, says she attended the panel discussion because she sees herself as a future member of the gig economy.

To give students of all majors a more complete picture, the panelists covered topics that included wage stagnation, universal basic income and the recent law passed in California that requires app-based companies like Uber and Lyft to extend basic benefits to contract workers.

“The next decade will witness the largest workforce disruption in history,” said Latham, whose research focuses on technology’s impact on the future of work. “We need to have a serious discussion about how we help people adapt, because this disruption is going to cut across all professions. We’re talking radiologists, pharmacists and surgeons, not just painters, plumbers and electricians.”

While Kochan agreed that automation is disrupting the workforce, he said the problem is in the quality, not quantity, of the jobs that remain, which is leading to a polarization of employment and historic income inequality.

“As people’s jobs are affected, many of the jobs that people go to are low-wage service jobs,” said Kochan, who is a member of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future. “We have to find ways to upgrade the quality of jobs so that we can deal with this enormous amount of anger, frustration and difficulty that we find in this economy.”

Kochan referred to his task force’s latest report, released a month earlier, that called for public and private action to harness technology to create “a more inclusive society with a more broadly shared prosperity.”

Panelist Scott Latham speaks to students Image by Ed Brennen
Assoc. Prof. of Management Scott Latham, right, makes a point alongside fellow panelist Thomas Kochan, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.

“We need fundamental change in the role of corporations. This era of maximizing shareholder value has to come to an end,” Kochan said. “We have to make sure that we rebuild the worker’s voice and strengthen the role of workers.”

Kochan doesn’t know if California’s gig economy rights law, which is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, will work as expected, but he’s interested in seeing it “as an experiment.”

Latham, meanwhile, said the law was well-intended but “ham-handed,” since many gig workers want the personal freedom of working on demand for companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash – freedom they could lose if they are considered full-time employees.

As for advice to students about to enter this transforming work world, both Latham and Kochan said it’s critical to engage in lifelong learning.

“There’s an increasing call for a 60-year curriculum. As bachelor’s and master’s students in this room, this is not your last stop,” said Latham, who encouraged students to be active in shaping their future careers. “Don’t be passive. The future of work is not something that’s going to be the product of a light switch; it’s going to be the product of the decisions you make as individuals.”

Kochan told students to seek out employers who will help them learn new skills to “deepen and broaden your human capital,” and to make sure those skills combine technical and social know-how.

students listen to the panelists Image by Ed Brennen
Students listen as the panelists discuss how part-time "gig" workers are shaping the future workforce.

“Just about everyone your age grew up with these technologies,” Kochan said. “Your ability to add value to them, to manipulate them, combined with the social skills of being able to analyze problems, communicate ideas, work in teams and resolve problems with colleagues – that’s what’s valued.”

The advice left students like Hertz more hopeful about their futures.

“Prof. Latham mentioned a stat about how most of the jobs in 10 to 15 years haven’t even been created today,” Hertz said. “When I think about that, it’s sort of scary. But maybe it’s reassuring that I’m getting a social science degree, where I’m learning some of these communication skills that are going to be important to maintain throughout my career.”

The Labor Education Program, led by Director Susan Winning, provides training, education and strategic planning support to workers, unions and other community-based organizations.

“We know students have a lot of anxiety right now about the job market and what the future looks like,” Pellerito says. “We want to start to ask some of those questions and think about what that means specifically for our students at UMass Lowell.”