Can the sharing economy provide good jobs? That's what a recent article in The Wall Street Journal asked. They attempted to answer the question with one expert who said yes, workers today value flexibility and autonomy more than benefits. While another said no, the "software marketplace" simply seduces the underemployed and economically weak workers into jobs with no benefits and little protection.

The article says startups such as Uber, TaskRabbit and Handy "are transforming the way consumers access goods and services by matching people who need something—a driver, a housecleaner or a handyman, for example—with providers willing to supply it."

It’s called the sharing economy, and although traditional staffing firms aren't venture-capital backed Silicon Valley startups, some argue they could and should be considered part of this conversation as well.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey says more and more people are attracted to a job with flexible hours and the chance to have a greater control over their own destiny. 

The empowerment argument

Rachel Botsman is an author currently teaching an M.B.A. course on the collaborative economy at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.

"The sharing economy is empowering millions of people to unlock the value of their time, skills and talents to make money in ways and on a scale never possible before. It is providing good jobs, but not in the way 'good jobs' are traditionally defined." 

She says the workers in this new economy fall into four groups.

First are the "flexers," she says, people for whom the demands of conventional jobs aren’t an option.

Next are those who can’t find a traditional job. Batsman opines this new type of work isn’t the complete answer to unemployment, but it can be a savior for many.

The third group, the “pros,” make a full-time living from the gig economy.

And the fourth group is comprised of those with traditional full-time jobs who seek out extra income through these new platforms.

Botsman says for many, a traditional employment relationship is an outdated and unattractive concept. She admits though, there are critics of these new work arrangements. 

"It is true that benefits like health insurance and sick pay are being decoupled from the employment contract. But the sharing economy didn’t create this disparity; it is caught in a historical cycle of technological innovation outpacing employment law."

She says though the "genie" is out of the bottle and this new economy won't come undone.

"When 1,156 Lyft drivers were asked if they would seek a full-time job if they couldn’t drive for Lyft, only 25% said yes. The control over their schedule and rates and where they work, plus the ability to decide what they’re good at and enjoy, outweigh the benefits of a traditional job."

The other side

Andrew Keen, executive director of the Silicon Valley innovation salon Futurecast, says workers in the sharing economy are being shortchanged. And that the increasingly precarious nature of 21st-century labor is creating a new class of networked workers he refers to as the “precariat.” 

He admits not everything about the new gig economy is bad. But adds that the “jobs” offered by these Silicon Valley startups aren’t your fathers’ (or your mothers’) jobs. 

"By presenting themselves as software marketplaces, sharing companies view their businesses as platforms, rather than as employers. And by categorizing their workers as independent contractors, or '1099 employees,' these platforms aren’t obliged to offer benefits traditionally provided under federal law. The result is that sharing companies are creating jobs that have none of the legal benefits of traditional employment."

As a result he opines, the new economy is actually doing the opposite of generating good jobs; it is generating huge inequality between the owners of the platforms and the workers that sell their labor on them. 

"Too many sharing-economy workers have been seduced by the idea that the flexibility and freedom that comes from working when and where they want outweighs the benefits and security of traditional employment. It won’t be long before they discover it doesn’t."

What do you think? Will a Silicon Valley venture capital-backed software marketplace replace traditional staffing firms? And should staffing firms even be a part of this gig economy conversation?

Tags: Silicon Valley, Staffing Firms, Temporary labor, Contingent labor, TaskRabbit, Uber, The gig economy, The sharing economy, Rachel Botsman, Andrew Keen, Handy