The liquid workforce
Feb 24, 2021
Season 5 | Episode 4

The liquid workforce

Over a quarter of the world’s largest employers don’t just make or sell products — they also rent out workers. Let’s talk about how we got here.

This season, we’ve been examining what happens to workers who land in ”nonemployee” roles. But there’s another side to these stories: the companies they work for. 

Why would a company want that kind of relationship with workers? And, more importantly, who came up with the whole nonemployee idea in the first place? These questions led us down a rabbit hole of corporate consultants, outsourcing specialists and a 1990s business management theory known as core competence. In the years that followed, companies began taking up the idea of finding their core thing and outsourcing the leftovers. 

For this episode, we speak with one of the people who originated the idea of core competence and hear his reaction to how companies have applied his theory. We also talk to a consultant who has made it his life’s work to help companies expand their nonemployee workforce. In today’s business world, that expertise has become its own industry. Over a quarter of the world’s largest employers don’t just make or sell products — they also rent out people who provide labor for other companies. 

These kinds of workers are described in lots of different ways: “extended workforce,” “contingent workforce” and even “liquid workforce.” We’ll find out more about these terms as we explore this thing we used to call employment: what happened to it, why it happened and what this new kind of workforce means for the American dream. 

For even more of “The Uncertain Hour,” subscribe to our newsletter! Each week we’ll bring you a note from host Krissy Clark and explain some terms that have come up in our reporting. This week’s phrase is “core competence.”

Click here to read a transcript of this episode. Here’s some additional reading and material we used in our research:

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The team

Krissy Clark Host and Senior Correspondent
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Catherine Winter Senior Editor
Chris Julin Producer
Sitara Nieves Executive Director, On Demand
Erica Phillips Writer/Producer
Marque Greene Assistant Producer
Tony Wagner Digital Producer