If you want a sign of the gig economy’s increasing importance, look no further than the 2016 presidential race. Two front-runners, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, recently positioned themselves on either side of the debate—Bush, by suggesting that technological disruption improves customer service and competition; Clinton, by wondering publicly whether this new take on contracting will hurt workers’ rights.
Election aside, if national trends continue, a greater portion of Americans—and, by extension, tech pros—could find themselves juggling multiple employers, and earning money by signing up for micro-gigs via apps. In addition to Uber and other major players, a growing number of startups have set their sights on “micro-contracting” assorted industries. At Fivrr, for example, services such as Web design and SEO optimization start at $5; and while you’re not likely to pay $5 for a WordPress site, you could get a reasonable one for $50.
As with Uber, a typical Fivrr customer provides a rating for the work and professionalism of the contractor. Too many poor performances and the contractor will end up ranked at the bottom, essentially kicked off the platform.
The tech sector seems an especially ripe target for an Uber-style business model. With 7,000 independent contractors, Geekatoo is one such company adopting that strategy, by connecting tech professionals with people in need of tech support. Though it services businesses, the majority of the contracting jobs come from consumers who might need something as simple as installing a printer.
Geekatoo’s basic model looks similar to Geek Squad, the market leader, but that’s where the comparison ends. Geek Squad employs more than 20,000 people. Though they are not all techs, the majority are employees eligible for benefits such as sick time and store discounts.
That isn’t true at Geekatoo, but the company’s co-founder and CEO, Kevin Davis, insists that he’s offering something more for employees. “People want the freedom to work when they want and I think it’s a very attractive proposition for people who want to work between different jobs,” he said.
But can a tech pro make a living off Geekatoo gigs? Davis wouldn’t offer how much an average contractor worked on a weekly basis. In theory, such gigs aren’t meant to be full-time; someone may drive for Uber one day, repair a PC for Geekatoo the next, and fill out the rest of the week with another tech-contractor gig at Eden or something similar.
Human-resources consultant Rebecca Mazin sees firsthand that the gig economy is already here: “I do some work as a job search coach through a local library, and I see many twentysomethings putting together a career with a variety of freelance assignments or gigs. I also see this among people in the 50-plus age range.”
Employee or Contractor?
In becoming the flagship of the gig economy, Uber has attracted its share of controversies, most notably over whether its contractors are exploited. This summer, the California Labor Commission ruled that drivers were employees, not contractors; it remains to be seen whether the ruling stands, or even goes national via legal action in other states.
Other stalwarts of the gig economy have attracted similar legal heat. Handy, which you could describe as “Uber for house cleaning,” ended up the target of a lawsuit over contractor benefits. Homejoy, which offered a similar service, recently shut its doors due to a lawsuit over worker misclassification.
Micro-gigs might offer workers a lot of flexibility, but people like benefits, too. And therein lies the central tension of the gig economy: When is a contractor really an employee? Can this new breed of employers survive if they need to start shelling out benefits?
“I think it is naive to think that the long term career with one employer will return as a norm,” Mazin said. “There are too many employers hiring people for gigs, or simply starting any staff member part time.”
According to freelanceunion.org, 34 percent of workers in the United States already do some level of freelancing. The gig economy is here to stay, in tech and otherwise; but how prevalent will it actually become?