Gig economy is opening doors to rural livelihoods in some areas

Last week, the Daily Yonder (via Roberto Gallardo) recently posted interesting research on how broadband is opening the door in rural areas to “gig economy” work. Gig economy work is consulting, temporary, freelance work – non-traditional jobs. They looked at the rise (or fall) of “non-employer establishments” in various areas from 2003 to 2013.

Earlier research showed that rural areas saw a decline in gig economy jobs overall but once you look by industry you can see that’s not true across the board. And the results are different in small cities and rural areas.

I’m just showing a few of the industries – you should check out the Daily Yonder for more details…

DY 1 DY 2 DY 3

This week they have posted a follow up indicating that while jobs in some industries may have increased, income from gig economy jobs has not…

Income for “gig economy” jobs declined in every industry from 2003 to 2013 for the nation and metropolitan counties. Only one industry saw gains in income in nonmetropolitan counties: transportation and warehousing.

They offer a couple of suggestions

My guess would be we are seeing the “pie effect.” After job losses of the Great Recession, more people turned to the gig economy. While the number of people attempting to earn livelihoods in the gig economy grew, the total income available in the gig economy didn’t necessarily expand. It’s as if more people are trying to eat the same pie. There’s less pie for each individual.


The gig economy isn’t the only part of the economy that struggled in recent years. Median household income (another measurement of economic health) has been stagnant or declining, as well. The income drop may be part of a larger trend affecting the economy as a whole.

Both make sense but I wonder if people aren’t trading income for the freedom of the gig economy too. I have a gig economy job. I work full time but I do work that lets me walk my kid to school, spend months at a time in another country, do work I feel good about doing. Sometimes I barter work and I work with gig economy tools, which provides some fringe benefits.

I am not a recent graduate, but I remember at one of the Blandin Broadband conferences hearing from soon-to-be graduates that money wasn’t the biggest draw for them in terms of a job or location – they wanted flexibility, they wanted to work to live, not live to work. The gig economy does that. Either way, the article has some advice…

So what does this mean for the future? The question isn’t whether the gig economy is an important part of both rural and metropolitan economies. Clearly, the gig economy is vibrant regardless of county type. The question is how we expand these industries enough to make the pie bigger so those relying primarily on gigs can make a decent living.

A couple of recommendations regarding rural communities come to mind. First, increase educational and technical assistance efforts in rural communities on how residents can participate in the gig economy, both as entrepreneurs to gain income and as consumers to benefit from access to a larger marketplace. Likewise, the technical ability and skills to “telework” are critical if the gig economy is to expand in rural counties.

Second, upgrading broadband infrastructure in rural communities should be a priority. Broadband is the backbone of the gig economy. Not having adequate infrastructure places rural entrepreneurs at a disadvantage. They can’t participate at the same level as metropolitan residents. Lack of broadband also limits consumer choice in rural areas, because they don’t have the same access to online marketplaces.

This entry was posted in economic development, Research, Rural by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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