For the past 20 or so years, it is fairly common to hear that the U.S. workforce is an increasingly precarious workforce – that is, made up of jobs with non-standard employment arrangements, such as temp jobs, on call work, and independent contracting.
Because these types of employment arrangements, often called “contingent work,” tend to offer less stability, lower wages, and less opportunities for advancement, compared with “standard” full-time jobs, the growth of the contingent workforce is often portrayed as a cause and/or signal of the erosion of workers’ rights and the decline of the middle class in the U.S. Others see it differently, however, and argue that contingent work offers the flexibility desired by employers and employees alike, and that flexible jobs allow faster and more efficient “matching” of workers with positions, thus boosting productivity. This debate, of course, centers largely around empirical questions, and the body of research on contingent work has been building for a few decades now (see Kalleberg 2000; Connelly and Gallagher 2004). Yet not all labor force surveys are designed to capture the full set of nuances of workers’ employment arrangements. Starting in the mid 1990s, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) had the good sense to collect data on this topic, in the form of the Contingent Worker Supplement (CWS) to the Current Population Survey (CPS). The CWS was administered five times between 1995 and 2005, and provided valuable data on these “nonstandard” employment relations.
The CWS, however, has not been conducted since 2005, substantially decreasing the high quality information available on contingent work at a particularly important time, given that the Great Recession began shortly thereafter. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) made a laudable attempt to fill this hole with an April 2015 report, which uses several data sources to provide an important snapshot on the prevalence of and trends in contingent work in the U.S. (the data go up to 2010). There are a few key takeaways from this report, some of which are long established.