Exploring the sharing economy & how it could impact the construction industry

You’ve probably heard the term “sharing economy” in reference to companies such as Uber and Lyft, Airbnb, TaskRabbit and Elance. Resembling a freelance model for society, it’s a new economic model in which people (or services) are being hired directly by consumers, and the employee dictates when and how much he or she works (or loans out their space). The trade-off for this flexibility is usually little institutional support (read: benefits or set wages) or job security.

Like it or not, the sharing economy is starting to seep into all areas of our lives. So, how has it affected construction, if at all?

Can I Borrow that Backhoe?
If employees aren’t yet being swapped and shared in construction like hired hands, equipment certainly is.  

For a small construction company that normally does remodels but, once in a while, puts in a basement, it is obviously more economical to rent a backhoe than to buy one. But why pay a premium price for a brand new backhoe—or an untouched, completely unscathed forklift, skid steer or power trowel—when a piece of lightly used, perfectly functioning equipment will do just fine?

That is the premise on which a few new equipment-sharing companies are based—EquipmentShare and Yard Club, to name two. It means that not only can a small construction company rent equipment at a lower cost, but a slightly bigger company can also make money by renting their equipment rather than letting it sit in the yard unused: a win-win for both business owners.

Part-Time Welder
Beyond equipment, construction may not easily lend itself to the sharing economy—at least not in terms of human capital. Construction jobs are often dangerous, and require specialized skills and sometimes extensive training.

But, for in an industry that is plagued by the labor shortage that started when the housing bubble burst and a large segment of the workforce fled, not yet to return, there may be a growing demand for “filler” workers who could come in and do a job without joining the company.

And some businesses that have existed for a while are marketing themselves to fulfill just this purpose.

PMG Manufacturing, which boasts 40 years providing labor solutions throughout the United States, bill themselves as ready to “meld their workforce” with any companies in need of skilled labor, whether because of a labor crisis (i.e. a worker strike) or a business’s wish to scale up quickly in the case of a big job.

How does PMG fulfill this promise? With a body of workers who are freer to come and go from the worker pool (like temps or freelancers) and who also forego the benefits of longer-term employment in favor of the flexibility of part-time or as-needed hours. This sounds like, if not the exact same thing, a close cousin of the sharing economy.

TaskRabbit sits squarely in the sharing economy and, at least, brushes elbows with construction. This app, which was founded in 2008, matches consumers with freelance “task rabbits” who bid on and win day labor-type projects ranging from house cleaning to furniture assembly to light carpentry and handyman work.

Any skilled construction worker can make a more decent living, likely, than the busiest of Task Rabbits. The question is, will services like TaskRabbit continue growing, and perhaps swallow up some members of Generation Z (also known as post-millennials) who value the freedom of a self-made schedule and task list over the steadiness and perks of a full-time gig?

Fewer Unions, More Free Agents
To put it another way, will the sharing economy ever seize hold of construction and shake it to the core? It’s unlikely, given the extensive training and skill required for so many construction-related jobs (and the decent salaries such training yields).

Electricians, plumbers, steelworkers, brick masons, concrete finishers, carpenters and solar panel installers do just some of the jobs in the construction or construction-adjacent industries that generally require years of hands-on training by way of paid, and often union-based, apprenticeships.

But union membership has been on the wane for decades, affecting apprenticeships. As construction recovered post-recession and contractors started to really feel the labor shortage created by workers who left the industry, the federal government stepped in, providing $175 million to fund nonunion apprenticeships, and programs are getting back to their numbers from 15 or 20 years ago.  

Still, it will be interesting to see if the dip in unions will make way for more TaskRabbit models for construction work. Maybe there won’t be an app for it—although there probably will be—but apprenticeship graduates or even the self-taught (Wiki-how, anyone?) might decide to act more often as free agents, bidding for jobs on their own.

Like with other parts of the sharing economy, this model would certainly have its pros and cons for the market and for the workers.