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Jacinta Whelan Q&A: Gig Economy

This article originally appeared in The Australian (subscription may be required to access content).

Jacinta Whelan is a partner in the Interim Division at executive search firm Watermark Search. She is a thought leader and popular speaker on the concept of interim management, portfolio careers and future ways of working, including the gig economy. She has more than 20 years’ experience starting and leading interim businesses in Hong Kong, New York and Australia.

The gig economy has really taken off in recent years. Why is that?

It got real momentum about 10 years ago, when the GFC hit. That’s when the rest of the world had its big bang in terms of changing how people work. In the US, 40 per cent of the market now works on a contingency “gig” basis and in Europe the numbers are even higher, at 50 per cent. Australia is heading that way too; in fact, our big bang shift in how people work might be happening right now. In 2016 the ASX top 300 companies said that 15 per cent of their workforce was contingent. By 2020 that’s projected to grow to 30 per cent. So when you see Telstra and NAB are letting go thousands of staff, they’re saying this is how they have to structure their workforce to be viable. We’re catching up to the rest of the world.

Is the benefit to the company purely financial?

I don’t think so. I think what you get is the right skill at the right time. You can’t expect an executive who’s been in a company for 30 years to be across all the innovations and trends. Once you’re in a company for a long time you become a bit institutionalised to “how things are done around here”. I think one of the benefits, apart from financial, is having fresh eyes: it gives a company insight into other players in the market on a constantly fresh basis. It’s a safe way to bring in new ideas and stay ahead of the curve.

At Watermark you focus on the top end of the market.

Exactly. We focus on C-suite interim professionals. These are people who no longer have to work – they choose whether they want to or not. So after a career of 30-plus years they’re at the stage of their life where the kids are grown up, the school fees are paid, the mortgage is under control, and they don’t have to work 60 hours a week 52 weeks a year. They can now choose how they work. They still want to be engaged but are building a portfolio career that might include corporate work as well as board work. They might also be juggling elder care or grandchildren care to keep them busy.

Is it ever disruptive for a company to get in a top executive on a “gig” basis?

Well the company still owns the objective; our people really come in and execute that objective for them. That’s the difference between what our executives do and, say, a consultancy, where they come in and tell you what the strategy should be. They’re still on the executive team and involved in the decision-making and absolutely part of the team, but they’re engaged differently.

What companies do you deal with?

Right now we’re busiest in healthcare, government and education. Infrastructure utilities is another big one. Healthcare is going through so many reforms, from funding models to customer experience, looking at different ways to do back office and what IT they need to deliver their service. They’re saying to us they don’t necessarily have the skill set in-house so they want our executives to teach them how to upskill in certain areas, or they want someone who’s done one or two projects with health and understands funding – a CFO, for example.

What’s the typical length of contract for one of your executives?

The average is about seven to eight months. One example might be that a CEO leaves and it’s going to take six months or so to find a replacement, so the company needs someone to hold the fort until that person can be found.

How would you describe this shift at the executive level?

I would suggest we are creating a whole new marketplace. These people would not apply for a full-time job; they’re finished with that stage of their lives. So if you want access to this kind of talent you have to get it on their terms. They don’t have to prove anything to anyone; they’ve already been at the top of their game.