Jun 022013
“Talent exchanges” on the web are starting to transform the world of work

FOR translating a 22-minute video from English into Spanish at short notice, 7Brands Global Content, a professional-translation firm based in New York, quoted “approximately $1,500”. This fee seems in line with the local going rate for the job from a firm which boasts membership of three professional associations and clients such as Chase and Bank of America. Not so long ago, paying the local rate was the only option. Today anyone seeking to get this sort of job done is only a click away from the whole world of professionals competing to do it far cheaper.

That same translation job was advertised on Elance.com and oDesk.com, the two busiest among several newish online marketplaces for work, or “talent exchanges”. On Elance it soon attracted 25 bids, from individuals in 15 countries. For around half the bidders, this would be their first job, which raised questions about how good their work would be (especially the Uruguayan who promised to “translate your interview perfetly”). But some seemed competent. According to his Elance page, “oswaldo g”, from Colombia, has already completed 31 jobs, earning a combined $4,193 and a satisfaction rating of 4.9 (out of 5). He quoted a tempting $16.44 an hour—though not as tempting as the five bids on oDesk (three of them by five-star-rated workers), from Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and the Philippines. Each of them offered a flat rate for the completed job, ranging from $33.33 down to just $22.22.

Such whopping price differences help explain why these and other work marketplaces have been growing fast. Last year the value of this sort of online work topped $1 billion for the first time; it will double to $2 billion in 2014, and reach $5 billion by 2018, forecasts Staffing Industry Analysts, a “contingent work” consultant. ODesk was the matchmaker for 35m hours of work in 2012 (over 50% more than in 2011), divided between 1.5m tasks, at a total cost to the employers of $360m. The value of work on Elance rose by 40% in 2012 to exceed $200m for the first time.

ODesk and Elance claim similar numbers of firms posting jobs, just over half a million each, and of signed-up contractors—3m on oDesk versus 2.5m Elancers. The fiercest of rivals, each claims to be the market leader, even though the monetary value of work done via oDesk is almost twice as great. “We cater to the higher end of the market, and don’t do big commodity contracts with firms like eBay and Facebook,” argues Fabio Rosati, the founder of Elance. Finding innovative ways to meet the needs of bigger companies is one of the reasons oDesk’s lead is likely to continue growing, retorts Gary Swart, its chief executive.

Anecdotal support for both sides is provided by Marc Piette, a founder of Locu, a start-up that uploads local content such as restaurant menus to the internet. The firm supplements its core staff of 20 full-timers with 300-600 oDeskers on any given day. He says oDesk has been helpful in developing tools that make it easy to hire, say, 50 workers at a time. The work is not terribly demanding (for instance, looking at menus to ensure that the Locu algorithm has properly separated starters from desserts). Mr Piette thinks this is too complex to do via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site, on which people can do basic “micro-work” such as checking the spelling of a web address, but nor is it the sort of professional-level work Elance says it specialises in.

Freelancer, the third-placed exchange, is unapologetic about being cheap; it has more than 7m registered workers, but generates far less work by value than its bigger rivals. In March, Rev, a new competitor, entered the fray, launched by former oDesk employees with a mission to “do for online work what Amazon did for online retail” (a mission admittedly shared with everyone else in the industry).

Read more . . .

via The Economist

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