Last month, ride-hailing company Uber Technologies Inc. introduced a new service that freight companies can use to find truck drivers looking for loads.
The Uber Freight service matches shippers with independent truckers who use a mobile app to see what’s available near them and pick up work with one click of an “Accept” button.
It’s one of the latest examples of the online networks, marketplaces and management platforms that have sprung up as part of the gig economy to help companies find independent contractors and freelancers find work.
At the same time, it’s helping rewire the relationship between organizations and labor. Platforms such as Uber Freight, Amazon Mechanical Turk, Fiverr, Upwork or Payable make it easier for companies to move work to contractors and away from full-time employees.
You can debate the logistical, political and ethical consequences of such a shift. Proponents argue that it’s an opportunity for organizations to be more agile, scaling their workforce up or down as needed to respond to competitors and market trends.
Opponents see the services as yet another way for companies to cut labor costs while shirking their societal duties to be fair to the people whose work they profit from by not providing them with the benefits and perks that come with being full-time employees.
The Growing Ranks of U.S. Gig Workers
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, independent contractors’ ranks are swelling. In 2016, 35 percent of the U.S. workforce — or about 55 million Americans — did some type of freelance work, according to a survey from Upwork/Freelancers Union.
Professions with significant numbers of independent contractors include editors, writers and authors (66 percent), web developers (35 percent), construction workers (23 percent) and delivery truck drivers (20 percent), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data compiled by Payable, a freelance payments platform.
For many companies, relying on more contract workers represents a significant shift in responsibilities for talent economy professionals. In the past, procurement departments were chiefly responsible for managing outside vendors, including staffing agencies that provided temp workers.
But as independent contractors become more integral to organizations’ talent strategies, the work of finding and managing them is falling to human resources and recruiting personnel, along with the tools used for those efforts.
From Matching Work with Workers to Distributing 1099s
What do online freelance platforms offer? Most are cloud-based and many have companion mobile apps. Some are simple matching services. Freelancers or other contractors open accounts (usually for free) and create profiles with their skills and expertise, résumé, portfolio or work samples, location, contact information and any other details that could help potential bosses determine if they’re well suited to a specific type of work. Profiles populate a database that potential hirers use to search for individuals whose skills fit what they need.
Some services handle administrative tasks such as collecting tax forms and setting up payments. They may also offer collaboration tools to make it easier for contractors to communicate about projects, as well as systems for rating freelancers and clients.
Or they can be industry agnostic. Upwork, for example, hosts 12 million freelancers in 180 countries working for 5 million clients, including 20 percent of Fortune 500 enterprises, according to the company. Upwork lists freelancers in 90 classifications (administrative support, finance, programming, sales and marketing, etc.) with 9,000 skills (eBay marketing, French translation, 3D rendering, etc.).
As of early June 2017, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace listed 187,012 often low-paid “human intelligence tasks,” including looking up email addresses and validating passwords. The service averages 1,278 active requests a day, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report.
Once a company finds the gig workers they need, they can use a platform such as Payable to collect tax forms, e-signatures and direct deposit information, pay contractors and create reports.
Gig economy platforms haven’t gone unnoticed by other HR tech vendors, some of which have added the ability to manage freelancers into the core HR management services they offer. Customers of , for example, can use the HR and benefits suite to add contractors to payroll and send them 1099s come tax season.
Uber Freight may sound like the ride-hailing service Uber is known for. But picking up a semi-trailer full of electronics or kitchen appliances from a shipper and delivering those products to a destination 100 or 1,000 miles away is significantly more complex than ferrying a passenger across town.
The platform accounts for that. Drivers must have proper qualifications, equipment and insurance for the type of freight that needs hauling, and be in the area when they’re needed.
Uber Freight started attracting corporate customers even before its official debut mid-May. Today the service works with some Fortune 500 companies and smaller shippers along with an undisclosed number of truckers, according to Eric Berdinis, the company’s senior product manager.
As platforms like Uber Freight, Upwork and Payable become more widespread, talent leaders need to consider how they could fit into their people management programs. With more companies of all sizes using the platforms to find and management contractors, there could come a time in the not-too-distant future when not using these HR tools could put a business at a distinct competitive disadvantage.
Michelle V. Rafter is a business journalist in Portland, Oregon, reporting on workforce and tech for Talent Economy and other publications. If you have a comment or a column idea for her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.