The temporary workforce in the U.S. is looking increasingly permanent. In April, 2.66 million people took on temp work, making up almost 2 percent of the country’s overall workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those numbers are approaching the all-time highs hit in 2000.
Enter TaskRabbit, the online marketplace for odd jobs. The company started as a way for people to hire neighbors to do their errands; the idea was sparked when its founder couldn’t find the time to pick up food for her dog. But businesses looking for inexpensive, commitment-free labor now make up the fastest-growing part of TaskRabbit’s platform. Earlier this year the company launched a service for businesses, and it says 16,000 of them have signed up since February, with the vast majority actually finding workers through the site. TaskRabbit announced on Thursday a significant expansion of its program. It’s now offering to help customers file tax forms, handle time sheets, and take care of other administrative tasks.
By moving from errands to real work, TaskRabbit is betting on a future where employment will seem much more like a series of small-scale agreements between businesses and labor than jobs in the traditional sense. Ten percent of the people who take jobs through the service do so full-time, earning as much as $60,000 a year before taxes. Last month the company said a woman in San Francisco set a new TaskRabbit monthly record by earning $10,000 through a tireless procession of odd jobs ranging from office work to copywriting to furniture assembly. (On the other hand, there are some people who just aren’t very good at cleaning houses and are probably not cut out for this kind of life.)
If that model of employment sounds exhausting, it’s pretty appealing for companies.
Employers’ desire for labor that comes without all the strings of employees is nothing new, of course. The first temp agencies, the Russell Kelly Office Service and Manpower (MAN), were founded in the Midwest shortly after World War II. To avoid the ire of unions, the agencies presented themselves as marketplaces for errand runners, simply an outlet for homemakers looking to pick up some pin money. But that pitch slowly evolved, and within 20 years companies such as Manpower and Kelly Services (KELYA) described themselves as pioneers in a whole new form of employment, says Erin Hatton, author of The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America. In an article for the New York Times earlier this year, Hatton quoted a 1971 advertisement for Kelly Services to show the unique appeal of the temp worker:
“Never takes a vacation or holiday. Never asks for a raise. Never costs you a dime for slack time. (When the workload drops, you drop her.) Never has a cold, slipped disc or loose tooth. (Not on your time anyway!) Never costs you for unemployment taxes and Social Security payments. (None of the paperwork, either!) Never costs you for fringe benefits. (They add up to 30% of every payroll dollar.) Never fails to please. (If your Kelly Girl employee doesn’t work out, you don’t pay.)”
In its cheery, Californian way, TaskRabbit is making the same pitch. The company’s business clients are largely the type of small, entrepreneurial companies that the Silicon Valley set sees as the future of the U.S. economy. Businesses have tasks that need doing, but they’re not necessarily in a place to hire someone full-time, according to Anne Raimondi, Taskrabbit’s chief revenue officer. “We have founders who don’t have budget or need for a full-time admin, but they have need of someone who can come in, respond to e-mail, and schedule their meetings,” she says.
TaskRabbit plans to compete largely on price. Neither Kelly nor Manpower responded to requests to discuss their pricing, but TaskRabbit and Hatton estimated that businesses pay the agencies 40 percent to 100 percent of a worker’s wage in fees. TaskRabbit charges only 20 percent for workers that businesses classify as independent contractors and 26 percent for those classified as full-time employees. So if someone takes a job that pays $100, the business that hired them would pay either $120 or $126, depending on their tax status.
The company also brings a level of analytics to the game, because each time a temp carries out a task, they get a new rating to add to their profile. You can imagine scenarios where someone would find this kind of work attractive. For those out of a job, or unable to take on a full-time gig, a few miniature bouts of employment may be great. And there might be benefits for someone looking to make an impression on a number of potential future employers. Johnny Brackett, a TaskRabbit spokesman, argues that the opportunity to constantly improve on a professional reputation is a draw for workers who use the service. “Imagine if after everything you did at work every day you were evaluated about it, and it was posted online,” he says. “These TaskRabbits aren’t just willing to do that, they’re excited to.”
Either way, this may be a more common way of working as time goes on. So get excited.