Career Transition, Job Search

Can MBAs Succeed in the Gig Economy?

By Marty Speight-
can-mbas-succeed-in-the-gig-economy

Jan Malasek (MBA ’95) is CEO of OnDemand Resources, a four-time Inc. 500/5000 provider of project-based and interim professional talent in the areas of strategic procurement, supply chain management and operations. Jan founded OnDemand with partner Jessica Malasek (MBA ’96) in 2003. Darden Alumni Career Services recently caught up with Jan to discuss the current climate for placing talent as companies grapple with the logistical and economic challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

Could you briefly describe your business model?

We operate in the gig economy, but at the high end of the spectrum. Our business is developing and expanding a talented network of independent consultants, and basically acting as a matchmaker to corporate operation’s work. Some of the folks we place are truly independent consultants, having left the corporate world seeking more autonomy, and some are people in transition who pursue gig work before they re-enter a full-time job. I’ve seen this world of independent consulting change a lot since 2003 when we started. Initially companies were skeptical of the model, but today gig work has become an accepted solution for addressing key corporate initiatives.

What hiring trends are you seeing right now in general? What activity are you seeing in this sector?

In terms of hiring trends, right now, the reality is that things have really diverged. On one hand, there are companies, especially in healthcare/pharma, food and beverage and tech companies that are looking for great project talent, on the other many companies in hospitality, entertainment and the like just stopped hiring. It’s going to take a little while for most corporations to go back to “normal.” Based on what I’ve experienced in past downturns, I expect that when the markets begin to turn, gig work will be the first place companies will seek talent. They’ll have specific, quick turnaround needs and won’t be able to do a long recruiting process and on-boarding. It’s a rough ride, for sure, for all of us, but we hope to be poised to help companies in the rebound.

So then the question becomes: What can people do to get ready for the market bounce back? The gig economy is very different in terms of the mindset, not necessarily the skillset, and the approach to how you present yourself.

Could you elaborate on what is a successful mindset for a gig consultant?

Number one is think like a consultant. Consultants don’t necessarily manage functions and teams, they are more focused on solving a very specific problem, and I think that’s the key difference between what people are used to doing in-house. Our clients want experts in particular aspects of procurement, operations and supply chain, not necessarily those with experience running large teams, big budgets and owning the P&L. So, successful independent consultants must sell themselves as experts in very specific subject matters. Another critical mindset is a willingness to be hands-on. The reality is that you’ve got to be ready to do the analysis, crank out the numbers and the spreadsheets.

How much is industry experience important to you in your match-making process?

It depends on the function and, to a lesser degree, the specific needs of the project. Generally, industry experience is not as important as being functionally strong. We focus on several broad functional placements: strategic procurement (how and what companies buy), supply chain management and operations improvement. There’s a pretty broad functional overlay between various industries in the sourcing world.

What is a typical engagement for someone you’ve placed into a gig?

Most of our engagements fit into two types — project work and interim work. A classic example of interim work is filling in for someone on maternity leave. Most interim work is where the company needs specific talent to fill in for a specified timeframe, typically six to 12 months. Interim placements are finding somebody that can immediately plug-in with the same capabilities and keep the business running. And sometimes an interim placement is brought in to address immediate work needs because hiring full time would take too long. I’ve seen some successful interim placements that then evolve into much longer-term contracts, and conversions into full time roles.

Most of our placements are on the project side, timeframes typically ranging from three to six months and matching a typical consulting cycle — come in, analyze, put the requirements together for the project, then take the company through the process to achieve a specific result. For example, it could be $X million in savings, like we recently delivered when we sourced foam for a mattress company. And it’s not unusual for a successful placement to then roll into some other project within the same client.

What advice do you have for Darden grads who are currently facing a furlough or unemployment and want to seek out gig work? What should they be thinking about and doing?

Alums who want to seek out gig work should do a few basic but really important things.

First and foremost, develop a great and thorough resume. I want to see very detailed highlights of key skills, capabilities, project details and results in functional areas. What’s valuable is saying something like “I’m a supply chain executive focused on operations planning and inventory management that delivered $17 million in results last year and $2 million dollars in cash flow for a client or company in this specific industry.”

Second, be visible! LinkedIn is the de facto standard for networking. Keep your profile up-to-date and use a nice, professional headshot. We pay a ton of money for search tools in LinkedIn so I know it’s a very valid and valuable source for talent recruiters.

Third, plug into as many networks as you possibly can because, ultimately, you never know where the opportunity comes from, but you want to have your hands in every possible pot. There are companies like ours, school networks, industry groups, functional groups, all can benefit you with information.

Finally, embrace flexibility. Gig work will have highly variable needs and budgets, whereas corporate jobs tend to focus on always moving up and gaining raises. Just because you take $800 or $1,000 a day for a particular project now doesn’t mean you can’t land $2,000 a day next time around. Gig work is about bridging the gap, being flexible. And you’ll have a much better story to tell when the next opportunity comes around and you’re asked, “What have you been doing?” You want to be able to say “Hey, I rolled up my sleeves and worked on this really cool project that utilized my skills and experience in a new way, and I really helped this company do xyz.” It’s a total shift in the way you look at the world. It’s about, how do I add value in a very defined need, as opposed to how do I manage to make the world a better place?

Are you prepping your marketing materials for gig economy jobs? Let us help! alumnicareerservices@darden.virginia.edu