4 skills students need to succeed in a gig economy

Freelance and contract work are the fastest growing jobs on the market, but students may not be prepared to be their own boss, Stephanie Vozza writes for Fast Company.

In fact, the number of self-employed Americans will likely triple—to 42 million—by 2020, according to a study by FreshBooks.

Freshbooks partnered with Research Now to conduct a two-year study on self-employment. Researchers surveyed more than 2,700 Americans working full-time as either traditional employees, independent professionals, or small business owners, Amy Wang writes for Quartz. Of the next wave of 27 million self-employed workers, 42% will be millennials, according to the survey.

Self-employment is not an easy career move, writes Wang. But as the gig economy grows, students and recent grads may be swayed by self-employment's promise of autonomy and creativity, she adds.

Students who enter the gig economy need to be adaptable, Jeffrey Selingo wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2016. Previously, students could specialize in one academic area and apply that specific skillset throughout their careers, he adds.

Today, however, students need to "continually build, expand, and refresh their skills in order to stay competitive," says Laurie Pickard, author of Don't Pay for Your MBA.

Speaking to several gig economy experts, Vozza identifies the skills students need to succeed in self-employment.

Skill 1: Learn from failure. To keep up with a changing marketplace, students have to be comfortable experimenting and learning from their failures, says Marion McGovern, author of Thriving in the Gig Economy. Too often, students worry so much about reaching the right answer that they don't experiment, she adds. But in the business world, "failure is just another point of departure," says Jeff Booth, founder of BuildDirect.

Skill 2: Be your best employee. In the gig economy, students need to be their own boss—and their own employee. Few students understand what it takes to be a good worker, but those who practice being a good employee will win more clients, says McGovern.

Also see: The entrepreneurial skills your students need to learn in school

Skill 3: Know your finances. Self-employment can come with uneven cash flow. Gig workers need to understand how to manage their expenses when they aren't expecting a steady revenue, says Diane Mulcahy, a lecturer on entrepreneurship at Babson College. 

Skill 4: Sell your strengths. Every freelance worker needs know how to sell their services, says Pickard. Gig workers can't just deliver a product, they need to be their own "sales, branding, [and] marketing," she adds.

Some colleges are establishing innovation hubs on campus to help entrepreneurial students take their side hustle to the next level.

The University of Utah, for example, designed a residence hall for student entrepreneurs. And Georgia Institute of Technology's CREATE-X program has founded 81 student startups, which have collectively earned two million dollars through investments in just three years.

Even students who bypass the gig economy can use entrepreneurial skills to get ahead, says Mulcahy. Students who take professional development into their own hands will have a greater chance of building income security down the line, she argues (Wang, Quartz, 2/28; Vozza, Fast Company, 2/28).

Related: How to translate student employment into meaningful career development

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