Training in the gig economy

You’ve got a great idea for a gig economy business and you’re anxious to join Amazon, Uber, Lyft and a host of other companies in the sharing economy, employing independent contractors as your workforce. But wait — you also want to make sure those contractors know how to do their jobs, and represent your company well. They need training, right?

That’s where things get complicated. In the United States, most companies that rely on the sharing economy can’t require their gig workers to take training.

Most gig economy jobs fall into the independent contractor category, and for good reason — companies that hire independent contractors don’t have to offer benefits. Companies pay the contractors to do a job, the contractors do the job, and that’s that. It’s a straightforward interaction not governed by labor laws.

Such freedom runs both way; independent contractors are legally free from what the Internal Revenue Service calls “behavioral control.” That means that employers aren’t able to dictate how the job gets done, and that means no training, because, according to the IRS, “If the business provides the worker with training on how to do the job, this indicates that the business wants the job done in a particular way. This is strong evidence that the worker is an employee.”

So, if you want to work with independent contractors, how can you offer them the information necessary to do their jobs without breaking the law? Sharing economy companies have addressed this issue in a number of ways from punitive training to creating communities of gig workers who can learn from one another.

Here is a look at some of those approaches.

Training as onboarding

Some companies require gig workers to complete an orientation before they can start working. This is a way to make sure that workers get some training before they’re sent out to start their jobs.

An example of this is odd job company TaskRabbit — a company which employs handymen, movers, cleaners and other general workers as independent contractors. TaskRabbit requires Taskers to attend an information session before they can begin doing odd jobs. It’s the only required “training” offered by the company and it covers the basics — rules and regulations, invoicing and other important things new workers need to know. Once a Tasker completes the session, they’re free to start work.

Training and community

Sometimes, companies in the sharing economy ask their gig workers to learn from one another. Lyft, for example, used to offer mentor sessions to new drivers — local, more experienced Lyft drivers would meet with new drivers, inspect their vehicles, do a test drive, and answer questions. Shipt, a grocery shopping service, offers their shoppers access to the Shipt Shopper Lounge, a closed Facebook Group where shoppers across the U.S. can find information, ask questions, and learn from each other. There are also local groups.

Training as remediation

Training is an important safety net. When employees aren’t doing their jobs well, they’re often sent to training. But what happens when an independent contractor fails to do his or her job well? Uber uses its driver ratings to determine who should be sent to training. According to a report in the Observer, if a Uber driver’s rating dips below 4.6 stars they might  be suspended until they take a four-hour basic driver training course, which they are required to pay for out of pocket. (It’s not a perfect system — if a rider has a bad day and takes it out on a driver in the form of a 1-star rating, that driver might automatically be sent to a training course.)

Optional training

Many companies in the sharing economy provide information and training materials — they simply don’t require contractors to use them. The length and quality of those materials varies — some are detailed FAQs, such as the informational pages offered by Amazon Flex. Shipt offers a Shopper Hub with information for its shoppers and an optional course. TaskRabbit offers optional free courses online for taskers who want to improve skills like cleaning, or furniture assembly. And of course none of those companies call it training.

Training your gig workers

You can’t require learning, but it’s probably in your best interest to provide optional training for gig workers. Most workers seem hungry for learning, and a market has sprung up to fill the gig economy training void: if you search for any gig economy company and the word “training,” courses and videos from individuals and third-party companies will appear in your search results.

In fact, often gig workers take to message boards to complain about a lack of training — one of the common complaints about Uber’s remedial training course seems to be that it’s basic; drivers wanted more detailed information, like how to handle belligerent riders or other difficult situations.

The fact remains, however: you can offer training, but you can’t force your workers to take it and there will always be some who don’t. If you want to require that your workers be trained, there’s really only one thing you can do — hire them as employees.