Asheville Residents Join the Growing “Gig Economy”

Jonathan Spencer
By Jennifer Floyd –

Buncombe County resident Jonathan Spencer resigned from his full-time position as a paramedic because he wanted more flexibility in his schedule and more control over his income.

Now, he has multiple income streams instead of just one, as he joins a growing number of Americans in the “gig economy.”

Angela Dills, professor of economics at Western Carolina University, describes workers in the gig economy as those who work on 1099s instead of as employees. “This would also include those for whom 1099s are not filed but are paid for one-time work,” Dills said.

The financial software company Intuit released a report in 2010 that estimated somewhere between 20% and 30% of the U.S workforce were categorized as independent contractors, and they estimate that number will exceed 40% by 2020.

“I think it’s really hard to know the answer to this question given that the data we use to track employment may or may not capture casual and/or gig workers, especially to the extent that gig income goes unreported and those workers may not want to inform government surveyors that they have that work,” Dills said.

People have been working side jobs for a long time, but Professor Dills thinks the growth is for a couple of reasons, the first of which is cost to employers.

“The growth of labor regulations and required benefits makes hiring full-time employees more expensive,” she said.

The second reason she thinks the gig economy is growing is technology.

“Technology makes it easier for employers to find short-term workers. Temp agencies used to fill this role, at least for some kinds of jobs. But a proliferation of apps and matching services now allow workers and employers to find each other more easily,” Dills said.

Spencer said both technology and word of mouth helped him land side jobs while still working as an EMT, although he didn’t use job apps to find his gigs. “It literally started as word of mouth from friends and family, to Craigslist, to Facebook pages,” Spencer said. “I used to do all sorts of side jobs, from plumbing, electrical, carpentry to small-engine and appliance repair.”

After quitting his job, Spencer narrowed down the work he takes on to focus on automotive repair, for which he has formal training. “I found myself doing it for friends and family anyway, so I decided to capitalize on it,” Spencer said.

He’s also an independent contractor in the medical field: he works as an on-site medical coordinator for festivals, and is contracted out by a company that provides anesthesia services for local oral surgeons on an as-needed basis.

YouTubers Corinne Leigh and Rob Czar.

Some gig economy workers make a living entirely digitally. Asheville residents Rob Czar and Corinne Leigh both worked in the service industry, but now their YouTube channel is their full-time job. Their channel ThreadBanger, which they started in 2007, has 3.9 million subscribers and over 1 billion views.

Described as “Not Yo Mama’s DIY channel,” the couple makes do-it-yourself videos that range from attempting projects seen on Pinterest to, more recently, partnering with Lowes Home Improvement to renovate a house they bought close to downtown Asheville.

For Czar, the flexibility of working in the gig economy is the biggest upside. “Have you ever been grocery shopping at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday? It’s gloriously empty and exuberating. Owning your own time is priceless,” Czar said.

But having flexibility does not mean working less.

Czar and Leigh say they average about 50 hours a week. “Some months throughout the year we easily log between 60 and 80 hours week,” he said.

For Spencer, a downside to working in the gig economy is the instability and lack of benefits, neither of which was a problem when he worked full-time as an EMT. To overcome the uncertainty, he says, “Plan for slow weeks and pay bills in advance if possible. Plan for sickness or injury,” he said.

This problem hasn’t gone unnoticed by those who study the gig economy. An article published in 2016 by the Harvard Business Review called for an entire overhaul of the social safety net
—in particular unemployment benefits—because of the rising number of gig-economy workers.

Professor Dills sees potential benefit in this call to action. “There are good arguments to be made to un-link benefits from employment. We observe that these employer-linked benefits increase job-lock and prevent better matching between employees and employers,” she said.

Making that transition may require us to redefine what it means to be unemployed.

Czar and Leigh have different concerns. “The biggest con for us is probably not having a set nine-to-five. You actually have to be really responsible and smart with your schedule, making enough time to work, play, and live a healthy lifestyle,” Czar said. “Balancing all of these can prove to be a problem. If you’re a workaholic you never take vacation and if you’re lazy, you never get anything done,” he said.

For those looking to enter the gig economy it can be overwhelming. Spencer encourages people to find one or two areas to focus on. “Find a needed service or niche and focus on that. Try not to spread yourself too thin. I was doing all facets of handyman work and found myself overwhelmed.”

Czar advises people to plan for the future, especially for tax time.

“Save money for your taxes,” he says. “The biggest mistake I see and hear about over and over again is people getting into trouble come tax time. A good rule of thumb is to stash at least 20-25 percent of your earning away every paycheck into a savings account.”

Asheville SCORE, part of the Asheville Downtown Association, is a service available for those looking to join the gig economy or become self-employed. The program consists of volunteer counselors who help residents with advice, seminars, and training.

A-B Tech’s Small Business Center is another resource available to residents. The community college’s programs aim to help workers navigate the responsibilities that come with being self-employed; on staff are counselors who assist gig economy workers in understanding their tax obligations and help them formulate a sustainable business plan that can turn a gig into a full-time job.

Is it worth it? For many people, the idea of living gig to gig is frightening; for others, working for oneself is liberating. Overall, it’s a growing phenomenon, so for anyone trying to do it, the key is to do it right from the outset.

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