The Not-Quite-Secret Weapon For Fighting Unemployment

on Thursday, May. 31st


When Shannon Mills left her job as the director of a nonprofit in Berkeley, California about five months ago, she didn’t know what her next job would be. After freelancing for awhile, she decided to hunt for something more permanent.

“I started putting in applications and you know how the job market is …it was just crickets on the other end. People weren’t even telling me thank you for applying,” she said. That routine can become demoralizing. Mills switched up her strategy, migrating her search for work to TaskRabbit.com.

TaskRabbit founder Leah Busque conceived of this online marketplace in 2008 after the stock market had crashed, and the wave of layoffs was creeping. “It’s really about empowering people in a service networking marketplace to connect and help each other out,” she said.

Many of the site’s early “Rabbits” were unemployed people looking to tide themselves over until they found a stable job in their field. More recently, the ranks have been plumped up by a lot of full-time moms, who take on Tasks like a grocery run at Costco.

“They’re out running their own errands anyway,” explained Busque. “It may be more difficult for young professionals that live in the city with no car. Our most popular tasks are in the category of house chores, grocery deliveries, food deliveries. One thing that did really surprise me is Ikea furniture assembly…there’s people out there that are experts at doing this.”

Using TaskRabbit, you can outsource everything from fixing a doorjam to penning a love letter.The person doing the hiring posts a task with a suggested fee, and then qualified TaskRabbits can counter bid. Busque says if a TaskRabbit has diverse skills, they could end up getting two to three Tasks, and up to eight hours of work, a day.

According to Gallup, the U.S. under-employment rate is hovering at 19 percent. New apps and services that help people supplement their incomes are taking off in cities around the country. Until TaskRabbit, Craigslist was the go-to free online destination to find casual work. But TaskRabbit’s strapping infrastructure of profiles, bidding, and reviews makes Craigslist’s “Gig” category look a bit quaint. And crucially, TaskRabbit has one-upped Craigslist on the trust factor.

“There’s a video interview,” said Busque, “a series of background checks including a Social Security trace…from there, just like at the DMV, all of our TaskRabbits have to read a manual, take a quiz to get their license.”

WALKING THE GIG TALK

“Trust and reputation are critical,” said Ariel Seidman, founder of a similar service, Gigwalk. “We’re helping facilitate a transaction between two different people. To me that’s the big learning across all these different systems.”

While TaskRabbit connects individual users with each other, Gigwalk matches people looking for extra cash with businesses that are looking to outsource localized tasks they don’t want to hire a staff for. Many of these business clients are using Gigwalk as a de facto workforce platform.

Twenty-three year old Maia Bittner tried Gigwalk soon after she graduated from college. Bittner was freelancing in software engineering, a member of “the cafe class” that parks themselves at coffee shop tables in San Francisco’s Mission District, fueled by espresso and free wireless. Gigwalk’s simple tasks, like taking panoramic pictures of the inside of her makeshift office, let her make a little extra cash while she was doing other work.

“They were going to post this onto Bing maps,” said Bittner, “so if people were looking up different restaurants to go to, they would be able to see what the atmosphere was like. I figured the seven dollars would buy my coffee for the day.”

Now that she’s got a full time job, Bittner accepts gigs infrequently. Scanning the app one afternoon, Bittner likes one of the gigs listed, which involves driving a client to the airport and being paid 40 dollars for it. But Bittner says it’s not uncommon to see gigs that seem tedious, like another one she spots in the queue.

“It says find and photograph UPC codes,” she said as she scanned the gig. “They pay eight dollars, which sounds like a lot of money for just taking a picture of a UPC code in a store. But I think it involves me looking through the store shelves, and trying to match up a UPC code with an item on a shelf.”

For Shannon Mills, TaskRabbit has let her re-invent her work life and enlarge her network. She finds freedom in it. She’s cobbled together enough work that it basically amounts to a full time job. She makes, on average, a thousand dollars a month. “It’s enough to sustain me,” said Mills. “I think that this is an experiment for me, and I’d like to keep trying it for little awhile, and see what works and maybe what doesn’t work.”

One thing that might not work, over the long term, is the lack of stability. That’s the catch about services like TaskRabbit, and Gigwalk. They’re thriving in part because of a shrinking traditional marketplace, and they don’t offer benefits, insurance, or a guarantee that the work will be there the next day.

TaskRabbit is growing fast. After getting its first round of venture funding last year, Task Rabbit has 4000 active Rabbits getting work from the site, and a thousand more on the waiting list. Using Gigwalk, 130,000 people have completed gigs across 50 the states.

This story also aired on NPR’s Morning Edition. It was produced by Youth Radio’s New Options Desk.

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