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Recruiting paramedics, EMTs in the gig economy

With a rising percentage of the workforce working a side gig or as a freelancer, services will need to adapt to recruit generations satisfied by being their own boss


Before we settle on a mentality that “no one wants to work anymore,” EMS managers need to look at just how disruptive the new gig economy has become.

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The words “staffing crisis” are nothing new in the realm of public safety. For years, chiefs and service managers have been sounding alarms, raising concerns and pleading for help to a wide variety of audiences seeking solutions to this problem. Anyone following post-pandemic labor reports in the U.S. knows that this staffing crunch has hit more industries, resulting in a nationwide conversation on wages, benefits, childcare difficulties, unemployment assistance, education, work ethic and more.

EMS surveys, including those conducted by Cumberland Goodwill EMS and the EMS Trend Report, have identified one of the most popular motivations for joining EMS is the desire to serve one’s community. Like many services trying to address recruitment and retention, we’re taking the steps to create our own internal academy to attract and evaluate candidates.

We’ve seen an incredible interest in our first class, but something unexpected kept popping up in applications: although the academy and position is a full-time commitment, many applicants were only interested in working part time. While we’re no stranger to paramedics wanting to work part time at multiple agencies, the idea that someone with no experience would have this same desire seemed odd to us and prompted us to do some additional digging.

Before we settle on a mentality that “no one wants to work anymore,” EMS managers need to look at just how disruptive the new gig economy has become.

The new normal: Working gigs

The gig economy refers to idea that workers take on several gigs, like driving for Uber, selling creations on Etsy or taking on jobs on freelance sites, like Fiverr, either in addition to or instead of working for traditional full-time employers. Gig workers set their own hours and take advantage of various advances in technology to effectively be a digital nomad, not tied down to down to working in a specific location.

The number of freelance workers in the U.S. has risen by 6 million since 2014, with over 59 million Americans now working a freelance gig. Fifty percent of Gen Z – those aged 18-22 years old – reported participating in the freelance economy, with 44% of millennials (23-38 years old) participating in some way as well. The pandemic has only accelerated these trends, with one study reporting 12% of the U.S. workforce taking on new gig economy jobs during the pandemic. Overall, 36% of all U.S. workers are participants in the gig economy, with an expected 50% participation rate by 2027.

The motivations for gig workers vary, but reports from that same study indicate that gig workers have higher job satisfaction and experienced a lower impact from COVID than did their traditionally employed peers. Respondents liked being in control of their own hours, being able to live the lifestyles they want, and earning on average $21 per hour across all sectors.

How a gig economy impacts EMS recruitment

The struggle for EMS, which has a reputation for sometimes long and difficult shifts, regulatory requirements and interpersonal conflicts on duty, will be to attract from generations where soon, more than half of their peers have experience working alone as their own boss, on their own time.

Treating EMS as a gig job in the U.S. could be seen as lowering standards and risking a situation where high risk, high skill, low frequency procedures suffer, so any movement towards “gigifying” EMS must come with a re-evaluation of certification levels, scopes of practice and continuing education delivery methods to appeal to those who may not have in-station down time to train without negatively impacting patient care.

Agencies today can, however, evaluate barriers to entry that may keep gig workers looking to serve their communities out of the workforce. Initial training may need to be more flexible, including using self-directed instruction where feasible, to appeal to the non-traditional schedule of a gig worker. If the future workforce continues to trend as expected, services of all levels and representing all population types and sizes will need to come up with plans to adapt, or find themselves with dangerously low staffing and overworked crews.

It’s clear that staffing troubles are nothing new for EMS agencies, but what has changed is the labor environment in which our industry is trying to recruit. With a rising share of the U.S. workforce participating in either a side gig or completely as a freelancer, services will need to adapt or struggle recruiting generations that have higher satisfaction from working for themselves. Wages, hours and benefits are only a part of this equation; training delivery, service structure and regulatory statutes all need re-evaluation as more people enter the gig economy.

The new generations entering the workforce are highly motivated to make the world a better place, but it’s on us to figure out how to be an attractive place for them to make their mark on the world.


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Nathan Harig is assistant chief of administration at Cumberland Goodwill Emergency Medical Services in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A member of the 2019 Citizen CPR Foundation’s 40 Under 40 class, Nathan has focused on ways to improve resuscitation outcomes through community engagement, prehospital quality improvement and innovative training opportunities for staff. Nathan completed his BA in Political Science at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.; his MA in TransAtlantic Studies at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland; and regularly serves as a subject matter expert for health and safety topics for a variety of different news organizations. He has programmed apps to help Pennsylvania protocol compliance and serves on boards to advance EMS at the state, regional and local levels.