By Julia Purdy
“Gig economy” is a term relatively unknown in Rutland. Musicians and performers used the term “gig” to mean engagements from one-night stands in concerts or coffee houses to theater runs that had to be supplemented by the “day job” waiting table or driving taxi—something that would not impinge on one’s true career as a professional artist or entertainer.
Moonlighting, freelancing, peer-to-peer, contingent work—by any name it means the same: working limited-term, on-demand jobs, and the practice has become so prevalent that it has burgeoned into an industry of its own, called the “gig” or “freedom” economy.
The gig economy parallels the economy of regular employment, filling in the spaces created by fluctuating or temporary demand for labor. With the rise of social media, apps and broadband, a legion of service platforms now court gig workers—and “employers”—anywhere in the world.
The Rutland Young Professionals featured growth of the “gig economy,” at its second annual summit held Oct. 16. Gwen Pokalo, program manager for the Center for Women & Enterprise-Vermont and a former business owner, facilitated that session at the summit. In an interview with the Mountain Times, she described the gig economy as “people who don’t have typical 9-to-5, single-employer relationships, who are typically part-time, supplemented by freelancing as a 1099 and not covered by the traditional protections offered by an employer, including tax withholding and benefits.” The gig economy raises “a ton of different issues” around job security and legal status versus pursuing one’s passion, she said.
She observed that “Vermont as a whole has a gig economy tradition,” not only in seasonal employment such as construction and agriculture but also the creative economy, such as graphic design, marketing, web development, and freelance writers. She mentioned the slogan “Moonlight in Vermont … or starve” with a laugh. She believes Rutland already has a “pretty robust” gig economy, and has for some time, pre-dating the term’s popularity.
Workers enter the gig economy for a variety of reasons, but have done so in greater numbers since the 2008 economic meltdown. Decided to turn lemons into lemonade many went out on their own, patching together part-time, short-term gigs. While some are waiting to get back into regular employment, others embrace the gig lifestyle.
Not all gig workers are young professionals, either. Elderly workers also have had difficulty finding regular work, with skillsets sometimes out-of-date with modern work requirements.
How are Rutland area residents faring in the region’s gig economy? To find out, the Mountain Times interviewed four gig workers of various backgrounds and ages.
Never quite retired
George Simpson is “retired,” lives in Pittsfield, and holds down two part-time jobs—one six-hour stint at a radio station and another 12-hour-a-week job at a call center in Rutland. His chosen career was radio since the early ‘70s, and the last time he worked at a regular full-time job was in a factory, six years ago. Speaking of his radio career, he said, “Like anything in show biz it comes to an end … I’m lucky to have this.”
Speaking for the music business, he said, “Nowadays bands and musicians have to become their own promoters/agents, do their own bookings, some make a living playing at clubs, others make a living selling CDs. … There’s no consistent paradigm anymore. … You find what you can, where you can,” he said.
Even so, he said, true independence doesn’t exist for most: “First of all, get everything in writing—everything—and read the contract completely and understand that nothing must be changed,” he cautioned.
Simpson’s wife is a postal worker in Pittsfield, and their son is a college freshman. They rent their home. “You have a certain amount of independence when you work for yourself—but you don’t have a safety net,” he said. “Money—getting paid in a timely manner—can be an issue. I couldn’t do this without my wife’s income.”
As for going back to work at a regular job, Simpson said “At this stage of the game, absolutely not.”
Beth, a long-time Rutland resident who requested her last name not be used, holds down four part-time jobs. Her last full-time job at a nursing home was in 1995; she left because she felt it was too confining. That job overlapped with housecleaning, which she has done since 1984.
Now she divides her working hours between housecleaning, an intermittent, contract-dependent call center job, a small gig in packaging and shipping for a manufacturer, and an even tinier job in retail. She doesn’t complain, though: her employers are flexible, and she enjoys the autonomy and free time between jobs.
Juggling schedules can be a challenge, she said. She doesn’t have a car and rides her bike or takes the bus, and said “a lot of energy is spent going between jobs.”
Her cleaning clients pay at the time of service, the manufacturing job pays weekly, and the call center pays biweekly. She is able to pay the bills but has cash flow problems and relies on a kind landlord, who accepts installment payments. She lives frugally, without a computer or the costs of a car. Her “only regret,” she said, is that the self-employment tax is a “big chunk” of money and she sets aside earnings from her smaller part-time jobs to use at tax time. She said she looks forward to the day when she qualifies for Social Security and can “retire.”
While she doesn’t want to change anything, she would like paid sick leave. “There are so many people in Vermont who are working these part-time jobs, the new law only covers full-time employees.”
Jack of all trades
Nathan Dunn was born in Randolph and has lived in Rutland for four years. He makes a year-round living juggling two seasonal jobs and freelance work in real estate photography, landscaping, and light carpentry, as well as running his own small media production business. In the winter he puts in 80-hour weeks in a ski shop and during the summer he leads hikes five days a week for New Life Hiking Spa at Cortina Inn. He said the last time he worked at a regular, full-time permanent job was nine years ago, in the deli of a general store.
He said that scheduling conflicts don’t happen very often, although “sometimes I have to eat on the run.” Outside his two main jobs, he can set his own schedule, especially with his video work and real estate photography. “The real estate agents work with you on availability,” he said. “You have to be good at scheduling, for sure,” he added.
Although he lives with his fiancee and they have carried each other financially at times, Dunn said he can pay his bills and have some left over most of the time—“I’m a very thrifty person.” Sometimes during a gap between jobs, he has to budget especially carefully.
For Dunn, two advantages of gig work are the variety and developing “a very diverse skill set.” He takes a business-like approach with his jobs. Being a long-time resident of central Vermont, he gets work mainly by word-of-mouth. He also offers his services through Facebook and online venues such as craigslist.
His advice? “No matter what you’re doing, your skills are worth money, you shouldn’t be doing anything for free,” he said. “You have to be straightforward on your terms and expectations and you have to able to keep your own obligations. Luckily I have always received the payment I agreed on.”
“You can’t really afford to make mistakes,” he continued. “You can’t make enemies, you can’t burn bridges with anyone, it’s very important to keep all your options open or you won’t get work. You have to be willing to take what comes your way—it’s not a lifestyle where you can be super picky. It’s a tough balance. Anyone coming into this has got to know, you have to balance it well.”
But in the end, Dunn said he would prefer to get a steady year-round job with a steady income. He feels the Killington area has limited options because of its seasonal nature, although he believes “the more they [Killington Resort] make an effort to become a year-round resort, they won’t want to keep hiring and training staff.”
Perseverance pays off
Joanna Tebbs Young may be familiar to readers of the Rutland Herald and the Rutland Reader. Through persistence and a steady focus she has forged a recognized identity as a writer and writing workshop leader throughout Rutland County.
Her writing and teaching activities have grown from gigs into an in-demand business by word of mouth and networking. She said she started getting “noticed” through her Rutland Reader and Rutland Herald columns. She has given journaling workshops for Castleton University, Green Mountain College, and the League of Vermont Writers.
Tebbs Young grew up in Castleton and graduated from Castleton College in 1994. She married in 2001 and lived with her husband for three years in Mississippi; they returned to Rutland permanently in 2009. Her husband is a therapy counselor, both in and out of private practice.
In 2004 Tebbs Young began holding journaling workshops and in 2009 became certified with the Center for Journal Therapy. In 2013 she received her M.A. from Goddard College while concurrently running workshops in her home.
Tebbs Young is busy these days. Current activities include leading a book discussion, Literature and Medicine, at Rutland Regional Medical Center, sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council. She also leads stress release writing workshops at RRMC. She offers “The Write to Recovery” weekly free for the clients at Turning Point, and facilitates Write Now!, a one-hour expressive freewriting session at the Chaffee Arts Center. She also has a blog, wisdomwithinink. She will be offering a professional development course at Castleton in expressive writing for public school teachers for personal use and to use in their classrooms. As if that weren’t enough, the Chittenden County Historical Society has hired her to write a book on local Burlington historian Lilian Baker Carlisle, founder of the society and executive secretary for Electra Havemeyer Webb during the creation of the Shelburne Museum.
Tebbs Young said that she started her career by offering workshops where attendance fluctuated dramatically: sometimes no one showed up, sometimes a handful came, sometimes a crowd turned up, she said. In spite of what must have been many disappointing moments, she kept offering workshops.
Tebbs Young said it’s important to establish an expertise—develop an identity that people will recognize. “Know your strengths and interests,” she said. “You have to believe in what you’re doing” and “push your own boundaries.”
As with all gig workers, money is a “huge issue,” even when married with a spouse’s income as backup. Describing her and her husband’s lifestyle, she said, “We’re very creative people … and are willing to struggle to live according to our values. It’s more important to be fulfilled. We live simply, buy used cars.”
Her advice: Don’t quit your day job if you have no other means of support.
A recognized sector, choice
The nomadic character of the gig economy makes it hard to pin down specific numbers as to the overall affect of the gig economy. Small Business Trends in July 2016 cited a report that claimed that “More than a fourth of the U.S. is now officially part of the freelance gig economy.” The U.S. Census monthly employment survey, conducted for the Bureau of Labor Statistics through in-person interviews, parses categories of employment but does not include a separate category for “gig” work. Kevin Stapleton, economic and labor market information assistant chief for the Vermont Department of Labor (VDOL), which issues reports using Census data, told the Mountain Times that VDOL has no data on the gig labor force for Rutland County.
But it’s safe to say that gig work has been a fixture of the Vermont economy throughout the state’s history, and that entrepreneurship in the digital age is no longer a choice of last resort.
Inside Rutland’s gig economy
By Julia Purdy