How and why are young Indians looking for white-collar gig jobs

The future is flexible.
The future is flexible.
Image: REUTERS/Loriene Perera
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“Power is slowly and steadily shifting back to the individual, and startups are facilitating this shift.”

That sentiment, expressed yesterday (July 31) by a venture capital executive, captured the zeitgeist at Chai & Chatter, a fireside chat-cum-panel discussion organised by Blume Ventures in partnership with Quartz India.

Held at The Common Room in New Delhi, the event began with an introduction by Sajith Pai, director at Blume Ventures, followed by a fireside chat between Mohit Kumar, former COO of Zomato Food Delivery, and Sandeep Sinha, co-founder and managing partner of Lumis Ventures.

The view on the “power shift” seems to dovetail with the prevalent belief that the future of work will have more open talent and gig workers, and India is slowly embracing this change. Indeed, a 2019 report by NobleHouse (pdf), a platform that connects businesses with skilled human resources talent, found that 73% of its respondents wanted to opt for freelance work over a conventional full-time job. A 2017 EY study on the “Future of Jobs in India” (pdf) even found that 24% of the world’s gig workers come from India.

These numbers also point to an ecosystem of facilitators connecting gig workers to projects, managing payments and building a portfolio. Startups like TapChief, Frapp, FlexingIt, and Upwork are products of a rising demand from companies for an open-talent workforce, and from freelancers looking for quality work. Though these are still early days, traditional employer-employee relations are undeniably changing.

This changing dynamic was also the focus of a longer panel discussion at Chai & Chatter, which had Nisha Ramchandani, who handles outreach for Axilor Ventures and writes the “Future of Work” series for CNBC TV18, talking to Sunitha Viswanathan, senior associate at Unitus Ventures, Shashank Murali, co-founder and CEO of TapChief, and Niranjan Nakhate, co-founder and CEO, Frapp.

Diksha Madhok, editor and director of Quartz India Platform, moderated this panel discussion.

Here’s what they talked about.

Platforms for gig workers

The gig ecosystem in India is now maturing with sophisticated hiring platforms springing up for varying skill levels. “One part of the gig economy typically deals with jobs that can be quickly interchanged. For example, for a Dunzo Delivery or even a driver for Ola, who doesn’t necessarily need different skills,” said Pai of Blume Ventures. “But white-collar jobs can be gigged as well. This is the category of skilled flexi work, where more and more full-time roles are becoming part-time and freelancer driven. Both these trends add up to form the future of work and each of them has players and support functions.”

Some of these platforms, like BetterPlace, connect blue-collar workers with companies. Others like Frapp, Upwork, and Avigna empower young students and fresh graduates to earn money by completing projects and tasks for large companies. Yet others, such as TapChief, FlexingIt, and NobleHouse, allow skilled white-collar professionals like management consultants and human resources experts to be hired on project basis.

“The on-demand contracting that the smartphone enables has reduced transaction costs to insignificant numbers, and that helps firms outsource more and more,” Pai said.

Other platforms are also trying to look at how they can improve the gig economy experience for the average blue-collar worker.

“We went into this market thinking ‘can blue-collar workforce be the first to be disrupted by the nature and the amount of skills required’? The idea was ‘can we provide an individual, who is an Ola driver today and could be an Uber driver tomorrow, health insurance and savings?’,” said Viswanathan of Unitus Ventures. “Can we ensure that this person, who has worked through my platform for so long, get the ability to command a premium tomorrow? Fundamentally, can I give the power back to this individual?”

Why large organisations are adapting to this change

Hiring a freelance resource has many upsides, the first and the most obvious one being cost. A company saves on employee benefits and office overheads when it hires a gig resource. It is also about finding the right kind of resource amidst a lack of in-house talent. For the freelancer, working with a large company means adding credibility and brand value to one’s portfolio.

“For any big company, the question is how one can work with gig workers through a consolidated platform,” said TapChief’s Murali. Platforms like his fill that need gap.

But why freelance?

The gig economy allows men and women across cities, age groups, and skill sets to pick up work without being tied down to one single project. Besides the diversity, it helps the young student demographic, especially in smaller Indian towns, to gather work experience with companies they would otherwise not have had access to. Those just entering the workforce find it easier to find gig work than conventional jobs that need some amount of work experience.

Though there are a large number of students and underemployed youth as freelancers, not all gig workers are those just entering the workforce. “We treat the future of work as being somewhere in the future and not as though it is already happening. The truth is it is happening,” explained Axilor Ventures’ Ramchandani. This is particularly true for women who left the workforce—mostly due to motherhood—and find it hard to get back on track with their careers. Flexi work is immensely popular among such women, but equally among the middle-aged demographic that is unsure of how to break out of the professional plateau.

“Technology is disrupting a lot of traditional roles within companies. People in their mid-30s and 40s, especially those who are unable to upskill, start thinking of what they want to do next. A lot of different people are doing a lot of interesting things. For instance, I came across a data scientist in a design firm…I want tell people that this is not the end of it, but also that we must rise up to it else we’ll miss the bus,” said Ramchandani.

Finding quality work

A student in his mid-20s, who was attending Chai & Chatter, spoke about his trouble with finding quality part-time work. “If you are going to a top-tier college in India, your needs are going to be very different from the needs of a tier-2 or tier-3 college student. If you are from a private university or a leading college, you are going to get a job any way,” Frapp’s Nakhate responded. “For a smaller city or tier-2 or -3 college, any income is good income. For a household where the total family income would be between Rs25,000 to Rs35,000 a month, contributing Rs5,000 by doing three different tasks a month also makes sense. There are quality work opportunities available for students, but at this time, they are difficult to locate.”