The release of the new Bureau of Labor Statistics Contingent Worker Survey (CWS), which measures alternative work arrangements in 2017, provides the first read from BLS on the evolution of such work arrangements since the survey was last released in 2005. These data reflect the type of work people are doing as their main or sole job, and therefore provide the best metric for those assessing the nature of work or trying to imagine its future. The BLS data indicate that workers in alternative arrangements represented 10.1 percent of all employment, a slight decline from the 10.7 percent measured in 2005.
This should throw some cold water on those hyping the explosion of freelancing and the rapidly changing nature of work. Roughly 93 percent of employment still takes the form of W-2 payroll employment—freelancing and gig work are not taking over. This is consistent with what tax data and other BLS data have been showing. The other categories of alternative work beyond independent contractors also did not expand.
The CWS is the best measure of independent contracting, as the questions distinguish between those who are self-employed as “independent contractor, independent consultant, or something else” and those who are “business operators such as shop owners or restaurateurs.” This is important because in regular BLS counts of the self-employed in the Current Population Survey, about 25 percent of “self-employed” workers also report having their own employees.
The CWS data show just 6.9 percent of all employment took the form of independent contracting. This is very similar to the regular Current Population Survey data, which show that 7.7 percent of employment in 2017 was self-employment without any employees (a measure that has remained constant for more than two decades).
Workers in contract firms, temporary workers, and on-call workers
Surprisingly, there was not an increase in employment arrangements through temporary agencies, on-call arrangements, or through contracted firms. It should be pointed out that this measure does not completely capture the rise of what is referred to as “fissured work,” since the contract firm workers in this survey must answer yes to the question “Do you usually work at the customer’s worksite?” and much of the fissuring of the workplace we see involves offsite work.