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Rebekah Iliff

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The Re-Organization of Labor: How Startups Are Seeding the Workforce Innovation Revolution

Posted: 08/28/2012 11:36 am

In the U.S., Labor Day generally marks the end of summer, the kick-off of NFL and college football seasons, and, for the fashion-forward, means those white shoes, pants, and other accouterments get pushed to the back of the closet until otherwise notified. As we face one of the most anemic job markets in recent memory, the traditional idea of Labor Day -- a celebration of the "economic and social contributions of workers" -- seems anti-climatic at best.

Unless, of course, you believe this was an inevitable implosion, now signaling those with creative guts to discover modern solutions to this labor problem in what a close friend recently (and accurately) deemed "a free market slowly turning into a Swedish style sort of state-sponsored capitalism."

Enter, stage left: entrepreneurs

When left to their own brilliant and risk-taking devices, these unique individuals see the recent U.S. fall from grace as an opportunity to rebuild what was lost somewhere between the 9/11 tragedy and the crash of '08. They exist both in regional markets (launching start-ups from their kitchen tables long after their kids have gone to sleep) and hidden in the RocketSpace Accelerator in the heart of San Francisco's tech scene; and let me assure you they are not only using Labor Day to catch up on work, rather than floating around on a boat with a beer in hand, they are simultaneously fueling our national need for a workforce innovation revolution.

What does this mean?

While the U.S. is spoiled in terms of freedoms and infrastructure not afforded to a majority of global markets, our revolutions do not require us to overthrow governments or protest against draconian leaders who squash citizens' rights in exchange for ultimate power; rather, our revolutions are derived from a force of will, whereby we choose to believe the status quo is not good enough, then go out and do something about it. What we need now is not a new government -- as much as the current political "scene" seems divisive and contrary to societal needs -- but a systematic formula for re-organizing the way in which we think about labor, jobs, and the workforce, supported by the principles of the free market.

The revolution of now is directly related to a fundamental need faced by any American with one-shred of pride: to be offered an environment in which her natural abilities, skills, and value system be recognized and rewarded. For career-oriented individuals, this translates to an income-generating platform: call it a full-time job, call it a part-time job, call it a consulting gig. The packaging is inconsequential; the positive emotions and relief tied to its existence are not.

How start-ups are facilitating the shift

Before Recession 2.0 we lived in excess, in terms of what we consumed. What we have now is the inability to consume in excess (costs are high, jobs are scarce) but excess potential for production. In short we have an economy full of stripped, willing, and able folks looking for jobs in all the right places: where entrepreneurs create them.

Hence, the excess capacity (whereby "production capacity falls below the potential capacity available to the producer") of human capital and assets: practically everyone is looking for ways to make extra money, or just money in general. With 44 percent of the U.S. labor force (67 million individuals) now free agents, the paradigm has shifted.

For entrepreneurs and innovators, excess capacity provides a challenging problem to solve and an opportunity to be had. Start-ups like Airbnb, with its global asset base of homes and apartments for rent, and Uber, with its on-demand luxury-car-when-you-need it app, were two of the first to explore this unchartered territory; and what they did was open a Pandora's Box for creative thinkers to begin re-organizing the workforce.

Following suit, start-ups like TaskRabbit have enlisted capable workers in San Francisco to provide consumers with viable alternatives to checking off tasks like doing laundry, picking up groceries, and dropping off dry-cleaning. With regard to jobs, these free agents buzzing around urban cities provide entrepreneurs with a treasure trove of labor. What they [entrepreneurs] have done is nothing shy of astonishing: no longer cock-blocked by an over-inflated and over-indulgent workforce, the real versus perceived opportunities have become readily apparent and they have stepped up to the plate and built thriving businesses.

For those cobbling together incomes in order to support themselves during school or those who want the flexibility and freedom to work from home, start-ups like Zirtual are providing U.S. job seekers with an opportunity to act as virtual assistants. Consumers, ranging from busy executives to over-scheduled moms, gain access to the platform for as little as $97 per month.

"Zirtual has provided me the opportunity to pursue my degree in English Literature given that I have evenings and weekends free to study and write," remarked Kyle B., as his ten clients affectionately know him. "Just this past week, I completed work for clients in a series of Portland, Ore. coffee shops. Few other jobs have this same flexibility."

For those job seekers straddling the lower to middle socioeconomic spectrum, now willing to embrace the re-organization of labor fueled by technology-enabled service platforms, the first movers assumed responsibility and became "parent" to them.

The future of jobs: relevant "career matchmaking"

While emergent technology-enabled start-ups are acting as a "stop-gap" during this largely transitional period of infrastructure re-engineering around job creation, nascent start-ups are beginning to focus on the antecedent to a healthy job market: appropriate and relevant career training for the new economy.

Stanford University-based LifeSwap is creating a platform intended to help solve the "training gap" we now face in the job market.

According to Founder Bastiaan Janmaat: "We are filling the void between superficial job information provided by family, friends, and job fairs on one hand, and major commitments such as internships on the other. LifeSwap is a commitment-free and extremely immersive way to experience a career for a few hours."

The genius behind this is two-fold: 1) It's creating a new revenue stream for those already in the workforce (excess capacity principle) and 2) It's providing a career path pipeline for highschoolers and college students looking for guidance and direction in a particularly daunting job market (leveraging the excess capacity principle to educate and inspire). What you get here is a double-win.

The workforce innovation revolution starts now...

For those willing to be flexible and agile, the opportunities are amassing. Physical locations are no longer required to provide infrastructure, and the infrastructure of today's burgeoning job market can be provided with something as simple as a login name and password. In this budding model, services are brokered through a third-party, backed by reliable systems, whereby risk is assumed on behalf of both consumer and service provider.

The next five years are ripe for market expansion using the prototypes pioneered by the start-ups mentioned here. It may not be the makings of a conventional workforce, and it may require uncomfortable changes, but we're not going back.

So as we kick up our heels, celebrate the beginning of football season, and surround ourselves with friends and family this Labor Day, let us also be reminded of the real economic and social contributions of workers: they are the fabric of a stable society, and include thinkers, creators, producers, and laborers.

And as we collectively shift the definitions, paradigms, and structures by which these individuals interact with one another, we can be proud that our national sentiment toward entrepreneurship is revolutionizing a fundamental aspect of a thriving market.

Like it's our J-O-B.

 

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