SAN FRANCISCO – On Wednesday, January 18, 2017, a group of 30 students from Minerva’s Class of 2020 had the chance to explore Upwork, the world’s largest freelancing marketplace. Minerva’s Professional Development Agency facilitated the visit to expose students to what it dubs “the future of work,” a chance for professionals to earn their livings from their workplace of choice through individual projects licensed by employers worldwide.

Two company representatives: Rich Pearson, Senior Vice President, and Jeremy Reither, Senior Manager of Upwork’s Talent Agency, introduced themselves to students. Pearson and Reither led the students through a two-hour session. The office’s bright, open space and innovative interior design contrasting starkly with the post-industrial architecture of San Francisco’s SoMa neighbourhood.

Pearson and Reither explained Upwork’s conception with the 2013 merger of two large freelance platform websites: Elance and oDesk. Pearson described the merger as “challenging,” citing the obstacle of consolidating two company cultures into one, and solidifying Upwork’s larger mission, to “[connect] not just their companies but first thousands, then millions of freelancers with suitable projects at companies across the globe” Pearson said. The merger took approximately two years. In late 2015, the company rebranded itself under its current name. It now has 12 million freelancers with collective annual earnings of over $1 billion USD.

Upwork aims to bring work opportunities to individuals in countries and areas that do not usually have access to the global market, explained Pearson and Reither. Both believe that, across the world, talent is distributed equally but opportunity is not. They hope that Upwork can be a driving force to change this disparity. According to Pearson and Reither, Upwork is the gateway to globalisation for talented developers in underprivileged and undervalued areas with narrow markets. Pearson believes that with the current low minimum pay on the Upwork platform, and serious attempts at underbidding, there is much work left to propel global economic development.

Pearson and Reither believe that Upwork welcomes parts of the workforce that the traditional labor market prevents from enfranchising. The employees of Upwork pride themselves on supporting stay-at-home parents, pensioners, and other underserved groups. Reither notes, however, that Upwork cannot serve these groups alone.

After presenting their project to the students, Pearson and Reither answered questions. Pearson discussed how “other agents can help Upwork shape the face of the labor force in years to come.” Reither believes that as digitalization and automation put thousands of individuals in traditional industries out of work, governmental social security is the first crucial safety net to keep people’s life in order.  The men’s ideas on universal basic income resonated among the students, though many had doubts on its more tangible impact.

To Minervans, the most compelling idea was innovative education programs to bridge the skill-to-employment gap. Both reformed youth education and adult training programs can help the “victims of the 21st century,” as Pearson coins them, discover their place in a rapidly changing business environment. Coding bootcamps and eLearning trends like Massive Open Online Courses are helping forward that path, but “skills validation from these advancements still need refinement for employers to trust them,” noted Pearson.

If such measures can be spread from progressive environments like the Bay bubble to the rest of the nation and the world, Upwork can be a sensational tool for reaching out to communities with underemployment and reintegrate them into what will be the workforce of the future: a society of project leaders connecting to problem solvers who help them turn dreams into reality. Pearson compares this to movie crews with a director bringing all the people together. Freelancers, he envisions, can be their own entrepreneurs and hire locally to expand operations for their company-related endeavors, forming a multi-layered system of small businesses and individuals interacting on projects in all corners of the world.

At the same time, Upwork aims to help larger corporations adapt to the individualisation of society and the workforce. Pearson explains that, right now, companies in just 20 cities generate 53% of the world’s GDP. The millions of workers that make up the pulsating hearts of these companies struggle with ever-increasing commute times and home prices–as any Bay Area resident would readily affirm. Many will move toward more individualised, remote-work concepts including possible virtual reality workspaces, and, as per Upwork’s vision: freelancing. In this vision, companies would consist of only a few ‘choreographers’ at the core: those who have groundbreaking ideas and can manage across fields. By matching them with the right project managers, Upwork strives to propel this change. It seems futuristic but the foundations are set.

All this ‘online dating’ between freelancers and businesses creates a lot of what, here in the Bay Area, is the alchemist’s gold: data, data, data; endless data on who works with whom on what in freelancing. Upwork does not just match companies and workers, it also oversees project completion and gains insights into what projects are on the platform. As the company is quickly scaling, predictive analysis tools from this data becomes ever more important to evaluate and match the up to 10,000 freelancers joining every day.

In order to give companies the best value, and freelancers their perfect job match, the platform has a two-way rating system where both sides rate the other on their work ethics and outcomes. It creates a variety of performance ratings that move us ever closer to the somewhat scary ‘social score’ society. What started with rating hotels and restaurants, and passed on to Uber riders and Airbnb hosts, will now, presumably, be part of work. Where that leaves personal privacy and the immeasurability of human nature remains unanswered, but for Upwork, the value of this rating system is immense.

Through ratings and project data Upwork can filter the best of the best and create a class above the rest that adds value for both companies and freelancers. The logic goes this way: with freelancing becoming more and more acceptable, Upwork will be able to attract and advertise to those who Silicon Valley calls ’10xers’: people who can have a tenfold impact on company success with their unique skills. A premium version of the platform would expose these talents to businesses seeking exceptional problem solvers–both sides win, and Upwork can charge them for it.

To close out their lesson on the future, our hosts invite all the students to join the network and become the ’10xers’ they seek. Another connection, another win-win for all. As the talk ends, students disperse and try to get a hold of Pearson and Reither to discuss the open questions that remain: Will this truly disrupt what we think of work? Will it uplift those lacking opportunity?

It is too early for definite answers but good food for thought for the change-makers that will shape the future of work.

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