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From Uber drivers to a Davenport 'mompreneur': The Quad-Cities' gig economy is evolving

From Uber drivers to a Davenport 'mompreneur': The Quad-Cities' gig economy is evolving

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When Karlie Van Soelen of Davenport started having kids, she made one of the most difficult decisions of her career: whether to be a full-time parent or keep working and bringing home paychecks.

"Like with anything it's a balance," the mother of two said. "You always wonder if it's greener on the other side. No matter what moms choose to do, it's hard. If you quit working, it's hard to stay home just because you have other areas of your identity you want to keep pouring into." 

After a successful early career in marketing, she chose to leave her job security and become a full-time mom — but, not without getting creative. Still eager to work and use her talent, Van Soelen decided to take up a side hustle.

In July, she launched a Quad-City baby gear rental business on the web-based platform, BabyQuip. The marketplace is basically Airbnb for baby equipment, she explained, where traveling parents, grandparents and babysitters can rent cribs, car seats, strollers, high chairs, toys and more. 

Van Soelen is the first person to bring BabyQuip to the Quad-Cities, and she delivers as far as Geneseo, Illinois, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 

"I love it because all of the time I spend on this is me being able to work, but me also being able to be with my kids. I'm doing this when I want to, like when they're sleeping, or I take them with me on deliveries," she said. "And it just allows for so much flexibility. I can grow this to where I want and not have to get a full-time job." 

Side jobs like Van Soelen's are growing increasingly more common across the country. Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 55 million people, or around 35 percent of the workforce, are "gig workers" — or freelancers,  independent contractors. That number's projected to rise to 43 percent by 2020.

For Van Soelen, who hopes to make around $650 a month by renting out baby gear, her side gig is a way to supplement income and foster her entrepreneurial spirit.

"The gig economy is a great way for people to make a little extra piece of income, or for anyone trying to get out of debt or who just wants to make money in different seasons of their life," she said. "That's why a lot of people choose Airbnb, Uber or Lyft." 

With more app-based jobs in the local marketplace, the Quad-Cities' gig economy is quickly evolving. And for some, like Van Soelen, the freedom of a side hustle is turning into the potential of running her own business.

Booking a gig

The definition of a "side gig" is fuzzy around the edges, according to John Solow, the University of Iowa's Economics Department Executive Officer.

Side jobs have become increasingly more common since the 1970s, as both wage stagnation and income inequality grew more prominent, according to Cornell University professor and author Louis Hyman, in his book, "Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary." 

"There's a definition question about people who just hold down two or three jobs — lower income people struggling to make ends meet. That's an older phenomenon," Solow said. "But what's happening a little bit more frequently is it's morphing from that into freelancing. 'I don't hold down two to three jobs; I'm an independent contractor who works for a number of people.'"

Technology has made freelancing and independent contract work available at the push of a button, he said. And what's called the digital "platform economy" is also transforming what side gigs look like across the country and in the Quad-Cities.

Nearly 1 in 4 Americans earn money from the digital "platform economy" according to a survey by the Pew Research Center

When Uber launched in the Quad-Cities in July 2015, it brought some of the first app-based jobs with it. Uber Public Affairs Officer Charity Jackson said there are now thousands of ride-share drivers on the road in Iowa. Airbnb and Lyft have also emerged in the Q-C market. 

Gig economy jobs keep popping up, with several food and grocery delivery services announced in the past year. Last weekend, restaurant delivery service Bite Squad launched in Davenport. The company starts by hiring around 20 drivers, but Chief Marketing Officer Craig Key expects Bite Squad to employ around 100 Davenport drivers in the next year. 

"We (employ) quite a few part-timers, who are putting themselves through school, working to pay off their car or pay off a wedding," Key said. "And it's a great option for that. It's not a regular 9-to-5. But we also have quite a few people who love it and where this is their main gig."

Always hustling

As Dan Snyder, 67, sat in his car waiting for someone to need a ride, he explained he never planned to work after he retired.

Last year, he left his factory job of more than 30 years. But even with retirement benefits, his limited income is not enough to pay for hospital bills, debt repayments and living expenses for him and his wife. 

"We sat down and really tried to figure it all out. What we were left with was not enough money," Snyder said. "I started driving Lyft between hospital visits for my wife and it's managed to keep us afloat. She hasn't been able to work for years."

If Snyder has to continue working, he said he'd rather have control over when he does. He had the car and the time — he said picking up the side gig just made sense. 

A new report by investing platform Betterment, surveying 1,000 people aged 25 and older, found 70 percent of "side hustlers" are working gigs for financial reasons. A lack of retirement savings caused 1 in 3 people to work more than one job, according to the study, which also found more than 75 percent of people over age 55 are depending on side jobs. 

"People are working multiple jobs and cobbling lives together," said Garry Klein, director of career coaching at the University of Iowa's Pomerantz Career Center. "The minimum wage sure doesn't help things. It's not enough if you want to own a home or do other things. I would say that will be the challenge for the gig economy until people can really figure out a way to easily string together opportunities. When you're steadily employed you don't have to worry about finding a job on Monday." 

While side jobs are easier to find with today's technology, Klein warned many gigs don't offer benefits. 

"What's the difference between Uber and a taxi?" Solow asked. "Are Uber and Lyft drivers employees or contractors or freelancers? The important thing is if they're employees, the employer has to provide health care and do all of the things the government requires." 

It varies whether gig economy employers consider workers contractors or employees. Key said Bite Squad hires drivers as actual employees.

"They make tips like in a restaurant, so that’s appealing. And many drivers might be older or in their second career, retired or veterans," Key said. 

Snyder said making some cash is his main reason or driving for Lyft. But, he's also been enjoying the freedom. He doesn't answer to anyone. For once, he said he feels like his own boss.

Building a business

As the gig economy continues to evolve, studies show side jobs are turning into full careers. According to the most recent Contingent Worker Supplement administered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one in ten workers rely on gig work for their primary income. 

Klein, who offers career coaching to undergrads, said more young people are looking to the gig economy for their future careers.

"You have to have this curiosity about what's possible for you. That's built into millennials, more than the boomer mentality where I come from," Klein said. "Generation Z students tend to be one step ahead of that even. They come to us already having side hustles or crowdfunded projects. They've created this stuff on their own and are bringing that with them."

Van Soelen, who considers herself a "mompreneur," said her work delivering baby equipment is more than a side gig. She views it as an opportunity to carve out her own career path.

"For me, the gig economy has been a pathway to entrepreneurship, and it's a quick journey," she said. "I was able to launch my business in less than two weeks. Not all people in the gig economy are driving for Uber or Lyft. Some of us are building businesses." 


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