Educators rethink curriculum as more students turn to ‘gig economy’

This story is part of a series about the gig economy published by Missouri Business Alert


Rudi Petry | Photo courtesy of Iman Woods

Rudi Petry graduated in 2013 from Stephens College in Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design. She took a full-time job in the field after graduation, but she soon experienced stress over her hours and pay. Instead of looking for another full-time job, she turned to freelance work.

While in college, Petry learned how to produce high-quality design work, manage design projects and present them to clients in a professional way.

As for how to start and manage a freelance business? She educated herself by researching online.

Looking back, Petry says she wishes she would have gotten more practical business training in college.

“If I took a basic entrepreneurship class, (the process of starting my own freelance business) would have been much faster and less terrifying,” Petry said. “Another thing is that I don’t even know what I don’t know about the business world. And since I work with businesses a lot, being able to speak their language is very important. So (an entrepreneurship class) would have been very helpful.”

Petry is one of a growing number of Americans who are part of the so-called gig economy, in which workers take on temporary or contract-based jobs instead of or in addition to full-time employment. According to a 2014 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union, 53 million Americans are independent workers. That’s 34 percent of the total workforce. Another study, from Intuit, predicts that by 2020, 43 percent of U.S. workers will fall into this category.

In light of those projections, some observers say colleges and universities aren’t doing enough to prepare students for the changing nature of work.

Diane Mulcahy, the author of the book “The Gig Economy” and a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, has been teaching a graduate business course, Entrepreneurship and the Gig Economy, at Babson College in Babson Park, Massachusetts, for five years.

“I started to teach (the course), because I felt like this is the future of work, this is a trend that is growing, and there is no sign of reversing,” Mulcahy said. “I still don’t see any other institutions teaching this. I think MBA schools in particular need to start addressing that curriculum. It doesn’t make any sense for our business schools to keep preparing our students to be full-time employees when it’s very likely that most of them will have some period working independently.”

In Missouri, several representatives for colleges and universities said their institutions are thinking about how the changing economy might affect their students, and what they as educators can do to better prepare graduates for the new job market. Those educators outlined steps that their schools are taking or should take in the near future:

Push projects and internships


Photo courtesy of Tess Surprenant

Tess Surprenant, director of the Bloch Career Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the emergence of the gig economy has stirred conversations among UMKC faculty about how the school can best prepare students for short-term, contract-based or freelance work.

One way to help students is through real-world work opportunities like internships and projects, Surprenant said.

We typically encourage students to pursue at least one professional internship during their time in college; however, for younger students it can be difficult to find those internships, so we have encouraged them to look for opportunities to work on a project or offer short-term, ‘fill-in’ assistance to an organization,” she said in an email.

While some internships are highly organized and designed to evaluate talent for long-term professional employment within that organization, many internships are project-specific — an employer looking to hire talent for a limited period of time, to complete a project or fill a gap. This is essentially the same as a gig.” 

Incorporate entrepreneurship into curriculum

Bonnie Bachman

Photo courtesy of Bonnie Bachman

Bonnie Bachman, an economics professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, said Missouri S&T has been striving to develop an entrepreneurial mindset on campus through curriculum design.

For instance, the school developed a seminar series in the electrical and computer engineering department through which seniors learn about customer discovery, entrepreneurship, value proposition and using the business model canvas, a chart that presents structure of a business plan, as a foundation.

“We found that a lot of our students don’t necessarily want to go out and interview people, but the foundation of the business model canvas methodology is to go out and interview, to see if there is a market,” Bachman said.

The school also created an innovation and entrepreneurship curriculum, which features project- and skills-based courses that promote experiential and collaborative learning.

“To close the (educational gap), the curriculum needs to be more projects-based and skills-based,” said Bonnie Bachman, a professor of economics at Missouri S&T. “Communication, collaboration and knowledge about how to run a project are skill sets that are important to people who work for corporations, startups or on their own.”

Equip students with in-demand skills

Holekamp, Cliff

Photo courtesy of Clifford Holekamp

Clifford Holekamp, academic director for entrepreneurship of the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, stressed the importance of in-demand skill training. 

For example, he suggested that students should be familiar with software. He also emphasized skills in computer science, accounting, finance and digital marketing, which he said are highly valued in almost any industry.

“We need to equip them with skills in demand in the 21st century,” Holekamp said. “We should be equipping all of our graduates in the state of Missouri with the ability to earn a good living.”


Photo courtesy of Tony Luppino

In recent years, faculty at the UMKC School of Law have been focusing on training students to adapt to emerging technologies such as new practice management tools, document assembly tools and social media.

“We’ve made a great effort to make (students) aware of different ways they can use technologies to be more efficient and to succeed as self-employed lawyers,” said Tony Luppino, director of entrepreneurship programs at UMKC’s law school.

The use of technology also enables lawyers, especially self-employed ones, to expand their clientele and make law service more affordable, according Ellen Suni, dean of UMKC’s law school.

Look to external resources and mentorship

Next semester, UMKC will host its first workshop on managing a part-time or full-time freelance career. According to Surprenant, the event’s tentative title is “Good Gig: The Promise and Pitfalls of Freelance Work.” The workshop will be open to anyone at UMKC, as well as any community members who are interested.

“Our idea is to bring in current students and alumni who work regularly as freelancers,” she said, “and we’ll try to get people who work in a few different industries and functions to give a more well-rounded view.”

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