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Defining the Digital Workforce: The Maker Movement as a Gig Economy

04 January 2017

As President Barack Obama prepared to host the first-ever White House Maker Faire in June 2014, he had just one question for his staff:

“Why is there an “E” at the end of 'Faire?'”

“I wasn’t sure—is there jousting? Do we all have to get dressed, or what?” he quipped to an audience full of the nation’s top scientists, engineers, young makers, entrepreneurs and innovators.

But as he soon learned, the White House was filled to the brim with anything but something as ancient as the medieval tournament game. He noted the mobile factory on the south lawn, a robotic giraffe, a giant red weather balloon in the Rose Garden, the 3-D papercraft dinosaur head in the hallway, and finally, a 3-D printed sculpture of his first State of the Union Address—“there could have been some edits,” he joked.

But after earning some laughs from his audience that included Bill Nye the Science Guy, NIH director Francis Collins and Intel’s youngest intern, “Joey,” who fired a marshmallow from a cannon in the White House, the President took on a more serious tone. He spoke about the promise of the Maker Movement and its place in 21st-century America.

President Obama explained that the Maker Movement—the increased availability of new tools and technologies and the democratization of manufacturing—is making the building of things easier than ever.

“Across our country, ordinary Americans are inventing incredible things, and then they are able to bring them to these fairs, like Maker Faire, and you never know where this kind of enthusiasm and creativity and innovation could lead,” he said.

But while the President’s sentiments about the rise of the Maker Movement are true, some might question the ability of such a movement to take hold in an increasingly digitally focused workforce.

Could the physical work usually associated with the Maker Movement translate to the needs of today’s internet-based gig economy?

While these shifts are equally representative of the increased availability of manufacturing tools and materials, as well as the globalization of our economy via the internet, the convergence of the two shifts could prove more complicated.

Micha Kaufman, co-founder and CEO of Fiverr, a platform that brings freelancers of many talents and clients together on an online marketplace, wrote in an op-ed on WIRED’s website that the gig economy could be the force that saves the American worker.

While the employment rate between the highest- and lowest-income families is at its widest since officials began tracking data within the past decade, she cites, “the unemployment rate for those earning less than $20,000 is now 21 percent, nearly matching the rate for all workers during the 1930s Great Depression. Amid these sobering headlines, you can’t blame American workers for despairing over their professional lives.”

But Kaufman says there is a glimmer of hope, as a revolution is taking shape in the form of an entirely different kind of economy, well-represented in her company’s mission.

“The labor force of new entrepreneurs, which we call the Gig Economy, is growing rapidly around the world and could soon represent as much as 50 percent of the U.S. workforce.”

But who is part of this workforce today? Kaufman says, “they are artists and designers; writers, editors and translators; animators, videographers and sound professionals; programmers, DBAs and Q&A experts; providers of office services and career advice. It’s our friends, and our kids. And in 10 years it’s going to be everyone.”

But how do we get from “artists and designers” to “everyone?” After all, it seems as though the skills appearing heavily in the Maker Movement are not as represented on websites like Fiverr.

On Fiverr’s site, you would have to dig a bit deeper to find service categories that resemble the kind of work being done by those in the Maker Movement. Moving beyond the primary and featured services, a site search reveals 3-D printing designers, product renderings, Raspberry Pi programming services, 3-D architecture visualizers, technical illustrators and more.

But what further democratization has to take place for these people—who President Obama calls vital to the future of the American workforce—to come to the forefront of the gig economy?

With Uber, Airbnb and Postmates—an on-demand courier service—dominating much of the conversation surrounding the gig economy, everyday consumers are beginning to interact with the gig economy more frequently and rely on it in their lives. From the view of both the employees and the consumers, these popular companies are driving the narrative that a gig economy can work for people everywhere, not just those in New York City or Silicon Valley. As this narrative becomes the standard, the gig economy will expand to include people offering one-time skills and service in a multitude of sectors. The rapid rise of Uber and Airbnb shows this is true.

The expansion of the gig economy can then give the Maker Movement a permanent home. Already, lists services such as glasswork and woodwork, showing that the non-technical side of the Maker Movement has a place in the gig economy. Even today in small towns across the U.S., craftworkers own small businesses and sell their work in a “gig” fashion, albeit offline. It is likely these types of makers will eventually fill the demand the online gig economy is creating.

That side of the Maker Movement and gig economy are the broad “everyone” and “American workforce” Kaufman and Obama mentioned. These two parallel groups include people of all education levels, from those who graduated from vocational school skilled in cabinetry, to those with doctorates working with 3-D printing.

When the Maker Movement and the gig economy come together more fully in the near future, a revolution will materialize that will create new jobs in industries for decades to come. Even though both have sprouted up like separate columns, they will soon converge—making the economy stronger and more inclusive.

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