With unemployment at 9 percent and 2012 looking bleak, many job seekers find themselves adrift in a modern version of the preindustrial piecework economy. E-lancers, freelancers, and assorted contract laborers are taking on discrete assignments that would once have been handled by full-time employees. Recognizing that financial crisis or no, people still need things done, entrepreneurs are brokering tasks for the un- and underemployed.
Amazon was in this space early with Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourced market in which programmers bid out simple tasks that humans do better than computers, like identifying objects in pictures. Although the opportunities advertised on SkillSlate, which bills itself as a local-service auction site, are more substantial, most are not the stuff of which careers are made. Consumers might post requests for proposal for an individual to remove snow or walk a dog or—in a more exotic example—order a traditional Chinese meal in Chinese for a group of friends at a restaurant. Small businesses and individuals supply their qualifications and bid for jobs. And providers see one another's pricing in a transparent auction, which makes bids more competitive. SkillSlate, which is not yet collecting a fee for its services, is ideal for hyphenated professionals: Masseur-bartender-taxidermists may be able to tat together a living from a variety of one-offs.
Many of the requests on TaskRabbit sound more like errands than jobs. But they pay, and in this economy, that's the thing. Businesses use the site to find bookkeepers, event organizers, and office help. But many people just want someone to deliver a mattress, drop off and pick up laundry, or assemble an Ikea bookcase. Unlike SkillSlate, TaskRabbit does not operate auctions: The company matches up rabbits with tasks, and collects a service fee of about 15 percent from the person commissioning the work. And who are those rabbits? Judging by the photos and short profiles on the site, they are energetic Jacks- and Jills-of-all-trades, people like Elizabeth W. of San Francisco, who boasts she can "knit you a mean scarf or make you an uncannily good cup of coffee."
Some small-jobs sites target specific professions. With government axes whacking school budgets and teaching a popular option among career switchers, tutoring seems like a natural port in the storm. Tutorspree is a site on which scholars can market their expertise, whether it's in calculus, creative writing, or music theory; the founders got the idea from watching unemployed friends seek students by stapling fliers to telephone poles. Tutorspree charges a 50 percent commission, payable by the tutor, for the first hour of the first lesson and a smaller amount for subsequent lessons. But as opposed to tutoring agencies, the tutor sets the price. So far, the company operates in five major cities. Tutors meet with their clients in person, arrange their own schedules, and set their own rates. For the pedagogical class, it's a way to supplement income or a stopgap until a supposedly recession-proof career can resume.
Educators whose talents run to more eclectic fare will find a home on Skillshare. Inspired by Sir Ken Robinson's TED speech about learning that takes place outside of schools, the founders created a site on which citizen-teachers can offer classes such as The Art of the Cold Call, Instagram for Beginners, and An Intro to Pearl Knotting. Teachers deliver lessons live—not by webcam—and Skillshare advises them on setting up classes in parks, coffee shops, and libraries. Skillshare nips off 15 percent of the fee.
According to my company's data, 48 percent of Americans believe that since the financial crisis, we have become more capable of starting our own businesses. But as work becomes atomized, perhaps people should think smaller—about individuals rather than companies and tasks rather than accounts. Ambitious entrepreneurs can always build out that landscaping service or car-detailing shop when the economy rebounds. Meanwhile, worker-bee networks are a way to monetize skills at a time when (with apologies to Norma Desmond) the need is big. It's the jobs that got small.