July 25, 2019

Got a Gig?

Roughly a quarter of Americans make money through online platforms 

When Bill McNeely first returned home to Dallas from Iraq in 2011, he couldn’t find a full-time job. The defense contractor and former Army officer ended up homeless.

“I had nine tours of duty with the Marines, the Navy, and the Army — and no one would hire me,” says McNeely, 43, who earned a six-figure salary working 24/7 in a war zone. “Sometimes things got bad, I had maybe $100 a week to live on.”   

While McNeely was a passenger in a ride-sharing car, the driver suggested he sign up to work for the company, which had a service that would lease a car to a driver. The gig not only paid him, it provided McNeely with a much-needed place to sleep. Along with working for another ride-sharing service, McNeely began making about $4,000 a month for 30 hours of work a week. “I felt great, not even working full time, and being my own boss,” he says. “I was able to stay afloat.” 

Now, McNeely works full time as a logistics manager at a tire company but still drives on the side two or three times a week for the extra cash. He is grateful for his past and present experiences in the ride-sharing world. “The gig economy allowed me to live,” he says.

The “gig economy” enables 1 in 4 Americans — like McNeely — to earn money through a digital platform. According to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of Americans sold or performed jobs or tasks through online platforms and apps that allow workers to connect with customers who will hire them for temporary tasks, such as driving or cleaning a home, says Aaron Smith, associate director of research on internet and technology issues at the Pew Research Center. “These platforms also offer users a range of ways to earn money, such as sharing their possessions or selling them online,” Smith says.

percent of Americans earn money through a digital platform

Lauren Sigler, 43, of Aldie, Virginia, used to work 12-hour days as a lawyer but transitioned to working from home when her first daughter was born. After her second daughter was born, Sigler stopped working altogether.  

But she missed having a career, a community, and a paycheck. “Not having anything that wasn’t mine didn’t work,” she says. Within a week of receiving a catalog from a fashion and jewelry business that operates through independent contractors, she realized she could have a career that allowed her to set her own hours. Nine years later, she’s one of the top leaders in the company, with 270 consultants on her team. 

“For us, the income is vital,” says Sigler. In fact, 56 percent of Americans who earn money from online job platforms attest it is essential or important, according to the Pew survey.  

But for many, side gigs are just that — on the side — and provide supplemental income. “More than eighty percent of the women I work with do so to make the paychecks stretch further,” Sigler says. “Side gigs are popular for professions like teachers, who can get by on their teacher salary, but use their side gig to live life.”  

Side gigs are popular for professions like teachers, who can get by on their teacher salary, but use their side gig to live life.

Lauren Sigler

Indeed, 37 percent of gig workers say they use the income from temporary jobs to fill in gaps or fluctuations in their income, according to the Pew study. 

Yet some of the most successful “giggers” haven’t even officially entered the traditional job market. Twenty-three percent of Americans using digital gig platforms are students. 

When she was in high school, Shannon Welch, 22, began selling her clothes on a digital fashion marketplace that allows registered users to upload photos and descriptions of their clothes and accessories and set a price. When the supply of her own items began to dwindle, she transitioned to “thrifting,” finding bargains and flipping them on the platform for a profit. About four years ago, she began repurposing thrift-store sweaters and sold so many that she transitioned the business to an e-commerce site devoted to handmade, vintage, and craft items.  

So far, Welch has made $150,000 on the digital marketplace. When she graduates from Texas A&M, the college senior has a pretty good idea of what she’ll be doing after she receives her diploma — ratcheting up the booming business she’s created online. She’s already investing a portion of her earnings into finding better inventory. 

“I’ve been my boss for so long,” she says. “I know how to succeed.”  

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