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How Technology Is Changing the Game for Skilled Professionals

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 9/03/2016 Jon Lieber
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Today, Thumbtack, America's largest online and mobile marketplace for hiring skilled professionals, released a new report describing how skilled professionals are using new digital platforms to find work and build their lives.
This emerging class of worker is taking advantage of opportunities that weren't available a generation ago. And, it is creating a social shift in how people think about their careers and lifetime employment.
The difference between a commodity and a skill
In the report, we distinguish between what we call "commoditized platforms" and "skilled marketplaces."
Commoditized platforms -- like Uber and Instacart -- are, for now, reliable sources of supplemental income for the service providers who use them. But the relatively low-skilled, routine tasks they enable individuals to do are overwhelmingly likely to be automated in the next 10-20 years. On the other hand, marketplace platforms like Thumbtack and Upwork, where individuals are empowered to provide a specialized, skilled service, are more likely to provide a sustainable, full-time living that will be much more resistant to automation.
This trend is already beginning - as economist David Autor has documented, there has been a divergence in labor market outcomes for people engaged in what he calls "routine" tasks such as assembly on a factory line or bookkeeping, and those engaged in "non-routine" work such as complex intellectual work or complicated manual labor, like graphic design and plumbing.
Skilled professionals can thrive in a digital era
Even with the trends in automation that are going to bring us driverless cars and drone delivery of goods, skilled professionals are well-positioned to thrive and use technology to increase their reach and potential. To take one example of how technology is reshaping local advertising, our research found that the most active skilled professionals on Thumbtack say that online paid marketing is more than four times more cost-effective than offline marketing, and within the world of online paid marketing, performance-based marketing is 2.5 times more cost-effective than other forms of advertising.
In addition to finding a more stable, sustainable living, the skilled professionals who do this work report high job satisfaction - 84% of skilled professionals we at Thumbtack surveyed say they "love what they do," versus a Gallup survey of the general working population found that only 29% of Americans said they were "engaged" at work.
These skilled professionals can earn higher pay. Because they are operating under their own brands and negotiating their own prices, skilled professionals can work for rates that work for them. As a result, such workers often make more than they otherwise could. Our surveys have found that the typical Thumbtack pro with only a high school education has a gross income of up to $20,000 more than the median high school graduate.
While the commoditized gig economy thrives mostly in urban areas, skilled professional marketplaces are growing and thriving in every pocket of the country. To estimate this, we looked at the Twitter followers of skill-based marketplaces like Upwork and Mechanical Turk, which have a majority of their followers outside of the largest urban areas, while commoditized platforms are primarily concentrated in large metros.
Policymakers should focus on the right challenge
These new technologies present a challenge, but it isn't the challenge that many policymakers address when they think about the gig economy. While much recent conversation regarding so-called "gig" platforms has been concerned with solving worker classification issues and providing benefits, policymakers should instead be focused on how to provide the next generation of workers with the tools they need to be competitive as skilled professionals.
This means reforms to our educational system to ensure that we are empowering people to learn specialized trade skills that they can use to make a living. This means supporting apprenticeships as the White House recently announced with its $175 million in American Apprenticeship grants geared towards helping tens of thousands of apprentices trained and on the road to a viable career.
It means pushing our cities and states to rethink their policies towards very small businesses and solopreneurs. The Canadian province of British Columbia has embarked on and sustained an ambitious reform effort to cull unnecessary requirements and regulations, using a very clear metric to hold themselves accountable.
More states need to follow the lead of Ohio, which recently enacted a law that prohibits taxing small business income in cities other than where that small business is based. The average Thumbtack pro last year worked in 9 cities and 4 counties, meaning that making sure the rules are harmonized across city and county lines is critical to simplifying regulatory compliance for these skilled professionals.
Finally, we need to embrace efforts that seek to uncouple benefits from large employers so that it is easy for skilled professionals to have the same benefits that workers have enjoyed for decades. That means continuing the momentum from the Affordable Care Act to make more essential benefits that were once solely tied to one's employer to be tied to the employee.
What will the future hold
The much-hyped gig economy presents the opportunity for flexible, on-demand work for people with a wide range of skills. Some of those opportunities will still exist in 20 years, while others will have been fully replaced by automation. Policymakers, educators, and the tech community need to rally to refocus energy towards ensuring that the worker of tomorrow has the opportunity to learn a specialized skill that he or she can use to make a living.

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