Trump’s Jobs Boom Clashes With Virtual Reality of Dancing Babies

  • Growth of digital gigs pulling Americans back into job market
  • But the work is no panacea for people seeking a steady income

Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency by promising to create a jobs boom for the middle-wage worker. It’s questionable whether sorting YouTube videos of dancing babies is what voters exactly had in mind.

Yet that’s the kind of work that Rochelle LaPlante, 34, has ended up doing. She quit a salaried office job in Seattle to spend more time with her family, but to help pay the bills she’s taking up “e-lancing” -- performing digital tasks, such as categorizing online content. For all of Trump’s evocation of re-industrializing the future, from re-opening coal mines to reviving manufacturing, LaPlante’s new gig epitomizes the type of work that is increasingly available to America right here and now.

While online projects allow LaPlante to keep busy, at her own pace, and earn more than just the minimum wage without needing to upgrade her skills, she receives no benefits or guarantee of the next paycheck. It’s hardly the dream job for many, and Trump may even argue it’s the kind of work left over from a weak recovery that abandoned millions of Americans -- the very working-class base who helped elect him to the White House.

However, for LaPlante and others like her, it’s an easy way to re-enter or even join the job market, and may be contributing to a revival of the labor force participation rate.

Looking to the future of technology and artificial intelligence, “everyone focuses on the jobs being taken away, and no one is focusing on the jobs being added,” according to Siddharth Suri, one of the founding members of Microsoft Research. Technological progress brings “more kinds of work -- AIs need this kind of data -- and so it’s opening up a new avenue for workers.”

‘Rapid Growth’

That should provide a modicum of relief to economists and policy makers who are concerned that the percentage of Americans working or looking for employment hasn’t increased fast enough since hitting an almost four-decade low in 2015. Despite a slight uptick in the labor force participation rate this year, there are still 1.3 million more Americans outside the labor force than before the 2007-2009 recession, according to Labor Department statistics.

Online gigs may attract some of those people. An October study by the McKinsey Global Institute found roughly 24 million Americans and Europeans have used virtual market places to find work, and that the number is undergoing “rapid growth.”

A recent study by the Federal Reserve board found that about a third of respondents engaged in paid freelance projects in the past six months, of which almost half sold goods on the web or engaged in online work-for-pay, according to the survey of 2,483 people in October and November 2015. About 65 percent of those freelancers said earning extra money was their main motivation, and that they weren’t just dabbling in a hobby.

Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard said in a speech this month the expansion of freelance work may push down the jobless rate, especially during recessions as new technologies make it easier for people to find temporary employment.

No Panacea

Although the casual nature of the work is a selling point for some, it’s no panacea for job-seekers looking for a steady income.

Brainard cautioned that the lack of health care and retirement benefits poses a challenge to policy makers. “We may need to enhance social safety net programs, such as unemployment and disability insurance, to better support some types of contingent work,” she said.

In the meantime, education organizations like Samaschool are expanding the digital workforce by providing low-income students with the skills they require to take advantage of the online jobs market. Web-based jobs can be anything from ordinary, ranging from weeding out redundant catalog entries to culling shop information from scanned receipts.

Lavell Russell, 35, studied at the San Francisco-based nonprofit that teaches how to build digital proficiency. He now picks up more than $1,000 a month performing tasks online, he said.

The money supplements what he earns from a web-based business he created called Everything Two Dollars, which guarantees same-day delivery of products such as candy, toiletries and cleaning supplies. He said Samaschool helped him learn about the gig economy and get on a better path after a teenage drug-related conviction and failed business venture.

Artificial Intelligence

Online gigs may increasingly provide more than just supplemental income, as the growth of artificial intelligence raises demand for workers who can perform tasks that go beyond the menial -- often for more money, according to Praveen Paritosh, a scientist at Google who is leading research in the area of human and machine intelligence. People can learn to do the work in weeks or months by taking online courses at little or no cost, he said.

“The complexity of the tasks that are going to these platforms are going to increase, and that is the reflection of the progress of automation and artificial intelligence,” according to Paritosh.

But for now, LaPlante says she’s happy with having work that’s just a click away.

“I have the advantage of being able to be a little picky and take work that’s higher paying,” she said. “You get a feel for what is going to be worth your time and what isn’t.”

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