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How 'microjobs' help you ditch your boss

Rick Newman
·Senior Columnist

Amani Roberts of Los Angeles did something hardly anybody would do in a shaky economy: He traded a stable full-time job for an assortment of part-time gigs. In 2012, he left a sales and marketing job at Marriott (MAR) because he wasn’t happy there and felt vulnerable relying on a single employer. “I decided I needed to diversify my jobs," he explains in the video above. "I didn't want to depend on just one career."

Roberts canceled his cable, cut back on travel and limited other expenses while living off his savings and getting a four-pronged career started. His jobs today include digital-media freelance work, sales of skin-care products, DJ gigs and driving for the car service Uber. His pay isn’t quite back to where it was at Marriott, but he has no interest in going back. "I can plan my days around what I want to do," he says. "That makes me happier."

This is the polished version of the “gig” or “sharing” economy touted by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and at least a few hopeful economists. New services such as Uber, Postmates, Taskrabbit, Fiverr, Elance and many others allow thousands of people to work at “microjobs” that involve no long-term commitment and offer more flexibility than traditional jobs.

“I think we’re going to see an explosion of microjobs,” says Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute. “It reduces barriers to entry and it’s an opportunity for the long-term unemployed.” The trend has even shown up on TV shows such as Down East Dickering, in which an eclectic group of rural Mainers competes for random opportunities advertised in a local paper.

A more-efficient version

Odd-jobbers and freelancers are nothing new, of course, but modern microjobs are an outgrowth of digital technology that brings laborers and hirers together more efficiently than ever, often via smartphone. Yet for all the attention they’re getting, microjobs seem unlikely to solve pernicious problems such as low pay for many workers and a shortage of entry-level positions that allow college grads to put their education to good use. Plus, microjobs rarely come with benefits, and juggling a variety of part-time jobs requires more adept time-management than showing up at an office day after day.

The rise of hire-for-awhile workers may also help displace traditional jobs. Taxi drivers, for example, oppose the rollout of Uber and competing services such as Lyft and Sidecar in many cities. Walgreen’s (WAG), meanwhile, has begun to make deliveries via Taskrabbit, which could threaten local delivery services.

For workers with self-discipline and the right skills, however, microjobs can offer liberation from the rigid schedules and stultifying culture of cubicle life. Logan Etherton of Cincinnati quit a full-time job with a nonprofit last year to become a freelance Web developer. He was new to the field and expected to live off savings for several months while learning the necessary skills. “My pay went to 0 right away,” he says.

His pay bounced back faster than he expected, though. Etherton signed up with oDesk, a site for computer-based freelancers, and after a couple months’ of learning the ropes began to get jobs that paid well while allowing him to work his choice of hours (starting around noon and working into the night). So far this year, Etherton is on pace to earn double his income at the nonprofit, while setting aside time to work on projects of his own. “I’ve never been as happy in my work life as I am now,” he says.

Succeeding as a microjobber requires many of the same skills required to get ahead in corporate America — plus persistence and careful planning. And many such workers advise easing into it rather than plunging in all at once. “When you’re first starting out as a freelancer, you need to do it on the side part-time until you can grow it into something that will replace your full-time job,” says Tracye Gano, a graphic and Web designer who started freelancing in 2008.

Gano got off to a slow start as a freelancer, encountering clients who were reluctant to pay and would stretch out a project to the point where it wasn’t worth the money. That led her to oDesk, which collects payments on behalf of its workers and guarantees pay for jobs done on an hourly basis. Gano, who once ran her own business, prefers her freelance setup because somebody else handles the administrative work. And the flexibility allowed her and her husband to relocate from the Houston suburbs to Costa Rica last year.

Digital professionals and other workers with needed skills are poised to thrive in a freelance or microjob economy, since they can often earn good pay working from anywhere. But workers who already struggle in the full-time economy aren’t likely to find salvation in microjobs. Etherton, the Web developer, has a friend who’s a former literature professor trying to earn money through freelance writing gigs — a tough proposition, given that the going rate is as low as $5 for 300 words. At Taskrabbit, which connects people needing jobs done with others willing to do them, 75% of the taskees have a bachelor’s degree, 20% have a master’s and 5% have a doctorate — which might be an expensive overqualification for somebody running errands or organizing files.

Writer Sarah Kessler spent a month doing microjobs recently and found it difficult to earn the equivalent of $10.10 an hour, which President Obama and others argue ought to be the national minimum wage. One problem is the overabundance of people bidding for many jobs — a byproduct of an otherwise weak job market — which of course pushes down pay. Perhaps the biggest complaint voiced by drivers for Uber, Lyft and Sidecar is fare discounting they have no control over, which may be necessary as competition heats up but comes out of drivers' pockets.

A bigger paycheck isn't always the goal, though. Seth Levy of Rockville, Md. recently added two new jobs to his portfolio, for a total of four. But instead of working more, he works less. A year ago, Levy was supplementing his income as an energy consultant by driving for corporate or private clients during downtime. But he’d often wait hours between driving assignments. With a newborn daughter at home, that felt like an excruciating waste of time.

This year, Levy began working as a driver for Uber and for Postmates, a retail-delivery service, in Washington, D.C. When not busy with one of his other jobs, Levy checks his Uber or Postmates account and usually picks up a paying gig within minutes. His income is about the same as it used to be, but he earns it in fewer hours — allowing him to care for his daughter, while his wife, a teacher, works. “I couldn’t do that if I had a 9 to 5 job,” he says. “I don’t have to ask my boss if I can log off early.” If microjobs mean fewer bosses, they're probably here to stay.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.