oDesk CEO: The future of work approaching quickly

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Work used to be a place. Increasingly, thanks to tech, we can get stuff done from nearly everywhere. That’s definitely changing how companies procure talent and manage it, and how workers build careers, (all of which is due to be discussed at GigaOM’s upcoming Net:Work conference) but exactly how fast these changes are percolating through the economy remains open to debate.

Today though online labor marketplace oDesk is announcing numbers that show this shift may be happening more quickly than many expect. The company released growth numbers showing contractors earned a record $22.3 million through the company’s website in October, which represents a 90 percent increase on last year. More broadly, they’re expecting the market for online work in general to grow to $1 billion in 2012.

We called CEO Gary Swart to find out what’s driving this growth, which is occurring across regions and sectors, and whether he expects it to continue, only to find him optimistic about the future of platforms like oDesk for three reasons:

  • The economy. The lousy traditional job market means more people are searching for work in non-traditional ways, but the squeeze on companies is also good for online labor platforms. Services like oDesk, Swart says, “Enable startups to have a level playing field and get access to great talent.” In Silicon Valley at least that means they, don’t have to compete with the likes of the local big players that can afford to give everyone a bus ride and three square meals a day at the office.”
  • Globalization. “The globalization train left the station 20 years ago and more and more businesses want to take advantage of talent outside of the area,” says Swart. “We’re seeing a lot of growth from companies in Europe, Canada and Australia who want U.S. workers. It’s a global opportunity, so we think that the market will continue to grow.”
  • Technology. According to Swart, “The availability of broadband in more rural geographies is creating opportunities for those not located around a metropolitan area. So while people in the San Francisco Bay Area have choices, people in Flint, Mich. do not.” That’s great for workers marooned in towns with less than vibrant job markets, but also good for the likes of oDesk as well.

Swart is particularly excited about the opportunities oDesk presents for those in out-of-the-way communities, noting that, “while most of our workers are located in metropolitan areas, we think there’s going to be explosive growth in rural geographies because the pain is more acute. Rural workers don’t have the options. Then broadband, the Internet and platforms like oDesk permeate into these geographies. We think there’s going to be even more growth on platforms like ours.” Already, per capita use of oDesk in small towns of under 15,000 people is growing to match metropolitan cities, according to Swart, and workers there are billing more hours than those in big cities like New York City and Los Angeles.

He also feels that interest in online labor marketplaces will come increasingly from big firms. “We had some large customers who came to us with the same challenge,” Swart explains. “They needed to instantly, hire, manage and pay a flexible online workforce. Over the last year we had a lot of large companies calling us looking for help, customers like Google, (s goog) Facebook, Amazon, (s amzn) Microsoft, (s msft) HP, (s hpq) Travelocity, and the phone continues to ring.”

While the advantages in terms of lowered cost and greater flexibility are obvious for the employers’ side of the equation, Swart batted down any suggestion that the deal wasn’t equally good for workers. Besides stressing his company’s ability to connect workers with open positions, Swart also explicitly answered criticism we’ve covered previously here on WebWorkerDaily that oDesk and similar platforms drive down wages for U.S. workers.

“In the U.S. alone, we’ve seen wages go from $19 an hour on average in 2007 to $30 an hour on average today,” he says.

Do you see a bright future for platforms like oDesk and location-independent contractors more generally? Do you think that will mean a better or worse deal for workers?

Image courtesy of oDesk.

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