Undercover Economist

April 12, 2013 6:10 pm

Microjobs have a massive potential

A new company aims to pair the least-skilled and most excluded workers with jobs that need doing on a more industrial scale
Illustration by Raymond Biesinger of a worker with an iPad©Raymond Biesinger

The internet has a wonderful habit of creating new markets. eBay is the most famous and enduring example of bringing together people with something unusual to sell and other people who want to buy it. (In 1995, its creator, Pierre Omidyar, listed a broken laser pointer for sale; when he received an offer, he repeated his warning that the thing was broken. The response: the buyer collected broken laser pointers. Bingo.)

More recently, sites like Airbnb and TaskRabbit allow people to rent small spaces, or work at small tasks. While they are commercial, they retain an emphasis on personal connection and community. Rising to prominence in 2012 was Kickstarter, which helps people with projects raise money in small chunks from enthusiastic backers.

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A new company, Upstart, offers fundraising for people who don’t even have projects. The typical Upstart is a precocious Ivy League graduate, all set to walk into a job at Google, Goldman Sachs or Exxon, but instead seeking backers to provide them with the financial security to be an entrepreneur.

All this is exciting. But oddly, despite the prodigious ability of modern computers to process data, each of these new sites works on a very human level. Every TaskRabbit task, every Kickstarter project is unique; the website merely facilitates personal connections.

“It’s all a bit 1995,” says Wingham Rowan, a technology journalist turned entrepreneur. And while the slick, user-friendly new sites are a world away from the text-based blue hyperlinks of the early web, Rowan has a point. Underneath the glitz, TaskRabbit operates much like an efficient small-ad board at your corner shop.

Rowan is now strategic director of a company called Slivers-of-Time, and he sees a missing opportunity: to bring the sophisticated market-making technology to the least glamorous end of the British labour market – to the poorest, least-skilled and most excluded workers.

A typical Slivers-of-Time worker is looking for a couple of hours’ work here, a couple of hours of volunteering there, either because personal circumstances make it hard to commit to regular hours, or because a full-time job isn’t available. A Slivers employer could be anything from a supermarket to a local council, a call-centre to a café, looking for a little assistance with the lunchtime rush, a product launch, or staff holidays. Slivers creates a searchable database, almost in real time, to allow an employer to find suitable workers at short notice, for a reasonable rate and with the right qualifications – anything from a food safety certificate to a driving licence.

This approach is finding some takers – Tesco and several local councils use the technology. But it is slow going. Slivers-of-Time is less cute than the “hire someone with a nice photo to pick up some dog food” approach of TaskRabbit. It aims to pair unused labour with jobs that need doing on a more industrial scale. And as Rowan argues, it cannot reach its potential without a lot of government work to sort out the regulatory environment.

Benefits need to be reformed so that doing a few hours’ work a week is encouraged rather than penalised. (In principle, the new universal credit should allow this. In practice, it’s not easy.) Governments also need to reform their information infrastructure: providing secure and selective access to databases so that driving licences, criminal records or professional qualifications can be checked instantly.

Yet such markets are potentially very important. Development gurus have long emphasised unlocking the potential of the poor by cutting red tape, establishing property rights and providing access to affordable credit. But jobs are typically what lift people out of poverty. And if it’s possible to develop microcredit in Bangladesh, it should be possible to develop microjobs in Birmingham.

Tim Harford is the presenter of Radio 4’s “More or Less”

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