Labor Efficiency: The Next Great Internet Disruption

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Editor’s note: Nick Cronin is a former corporate attorney and now the President and Founder of ExpertBids.com, which is based in Chicago.

For more than a decade now, the Internet has done a great job of making things in our day-to-day lives more efficient by easily connecting parties who can have a mutually beneficial personal or business relationship. This same idea is now on the verge of disrupting labor and changing the definition of employment as we know it.

The Rise of the Independent Worker.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a huge increase in the number of workers who operate as some sort of independent, free-agent contractor or consultant. Though the numbers vary greatly, the consensus seems to be around 20 percent of the U.S. workforce, and growing (with some estimates up to 50 percent by 2020). Think about that, one in every five workers are currently unattached to any one company!

Expert explanations for this rise vary as much as the number itself, but I believe the two most important factors, by far, are:

  1. Technology. Never before has a physical space represented less. An office building, in and of itself, often holds no more tools necessary to perform a job than someone can carry with them. Computers, phones, the cloud, and an overall connectedness has produced an environment where location is becoming less and less relevant. Not having to rely on someone else for the tools of productivity has given substantially more people than ever before the ability to be an independent worker. (No doubt there remain exceptions).
  2. The economy. The recent recession has resulted in layoffs and very high unemployment numbers. Further, there is a whole new generation coming of age believing that long-term employment at one company is a remnant of the past. Whether this is because they have read about layoffs, experienced it with their family or friends, or any other reason — many people, regardless of age, no longer feel comfortable or stable at a traditional job. So the economic conditions have forced some into an independent role by necessity, and it has motivated a countless number of others to explore work options outside of the traditional job.

Armed with the technology and connectedness, people are setting out on their own in record numbers. But where are they finding work?

Changes in How Companies ‘Hire’ Labor.

Labor efficiency is about having the right workers for the tasks which need to be accomplished. This includes tasks of all types and in all areas. More than ever, this is being accomplished by having lean, flexible workforces which come and go as projects demand. Increasingly, employers are parsing up tasks and having temporary, project-basis workers complete the tasks.

Take one gigantic U.S. company, Caterpillar Inc., who recently reported that they hired almost 30,000 flexible, contingent workers in the last quarter of 2011. By almost every study, companies of all sizes are emphasizing a lean workforce, and hiring on project-basis engagements more and more (though not all are as drastic as Caterpillar). This trend is not limited to factory workers or computer programmers or any one group — workers in every industry and profession are seeing this increase.

For a company to hire someone, there are many costs beyond a salary and benefits (which in and of themselves are substantial!). There are recruitment efforts, on-boarding costs such as supplies and training, and finally costs when the employee leaves, such as unemployment premiums, severance packages, and HR costs. Now, instead of choosing to go the route of employing someone, companies have the option of hiring some of the millions of independent workers out there for substantially less. Instead of paying all the associated costs, businesses can parse tasks up into projects and find experts to do them very efficiently – only having to pay for the work completed, not the secondary costs discussed above. Additionally, they can more easily expand and contract their workforce as supply and demand dictate.

Not only are the large businesses hiring more independents, this trend is trickling all the way down to the millions of bootstrapped startups who hire (outside of the founders) only independents for projects as they grow their company. The era of the lean, flexible workforce is here and guess where both companies and independents are increasingly locating each other. Yep: The Internet.

Time for Disruption.

There are already plenty of companies out there connecting one party who needs a service with another who can provide it. TaskRabbit and Zaarly specifically are two startups that have grown very quickly. But we are just beginning to scratch the surface of how the Internet is going to disrupt labor. The real change will come as more and more of the traditional job creators, small businesses all the way up to the Fortune 500s, realize the benefits of flexible workforces and more and more individuals take the plunge into independent, free-agent land — whether by necessity or choice.

There are many companies working to facilitate the connection between project-basis workers and companies. Marketplaces like ODesk and Elance provide a worldwide platform of freelancers in a variety of different fields. Some of these marketplaces are aimed more towards commoditized services, but increasingly they encompass services of all types. OnForce allows companies to retain the services of IT professionals for projects. WorkMarket is a labor resource platform. Crowdspring and 99Designs are creative services marketplaces. And finally (though there are countless others that could be included here), my company ExpertBids.com is a professional services marketplace for consultants, lawyers, and accountants. Every day it seems a new vertical labor marketplace launches. There are many obstacles these companies must overcome still, but change is coming.

Some have criticized this shift, saying this type of labor and employment is only increasing inequality and the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. We need to begin looking deeply into this trend and how it is affecting people, but an efficient labor system can have major advantages to both parties.

A marketplace where tasks are accomplished by the right people, at the right time, and at the right price (not lowest price, the right price) may seem to favor the employer. But think about an independent who has very little overhead, can work from anywhere, at anytime, and for anyone and whose income potential is no longer limited by a single salary. Removing wasted time and expenses is something both parties, and the economy as a whole, can gain tremendously from. That is where all of the online labor marketplaces, ExpertBids included, need to assist. We must create efficient platforms that remove the barriers for these two parties to connect in a mutually beneficial relationship.