Our growing “gig” economy

By: S. Joseph Scott

They’re everywhere. Like a silent invasion of paratroopers they just showed up one night. It is happening in cities all over the country and it happened in my home city Tampa, Florida several weeks ago. People all over the city began to encounter them. Bird, Jump, Spin and Lime. The “dockless mobility systems” mysteriously arrived. Really? Outside the industry we just call it a scooter. You find them standing on street corners proudly in line like children on the playground saying “pick me, pick me.” And then by evening, they are scattered over the cityscape drooping against walls or trees like winded runners trying to catch their breath. In between, they are pure joy for their riders. All you need is a smartphone and the courage to unlock your inner child. Download the app and for a fee of one dollar to unlock and fifteen cents a minute, you have eco-friendly transportation.

But, here is another great mystery which I posed to my wife- “But, who charges them?” How do they get recharged and returned to their neat little rows during the night? Who does the cleanup work under cover of night? Do those convenient locations double as charging stations? Are they solar powered? Is there some invisible satellite charging system in play?

Enter the Bird Hunters and Lime Juicers (Spin and Jump lack the clever captions). All four of these companies are the latest addition to our local “gig economy.” The gig economy is composed of all of those temporary positions where one works as an independent contractor with the freedom to set your own hours typically supplementing another income (think Uber, Lyft or Shipt).

So what is a Bird Hunter? It is entrepreneurial genius. Even PETA people can participate in this hunt! Ambitious self-starters download the same app used for a ride and sign on to “hunt” for birds who need revived. The app locates Birds out of juice (pun intended) via GPS, you provide the transportation and the electricity. All you need is a vehicle with enough space to carry them home. Bird or any of the other companies provides the chargers, you provide the labor. It is as simple as taking a drive around the city and plugging in your phone overnight. The Birds are then returned to their conveniently located “nests” by early morning for another day of flights around the city. Bird Hunters earn from five to twenty dollars per scooter depending on how difficult they are to catch. No doubt someone in our city has flown into a body of water by now. That is a twenty dollar rescue.

Regardless of how you feel about the clutter of scooters now littering our cities, it is the latest contribution to an innovative and creative industry. The gig economy is challenging traditional business models and forcing new ways of thinking about and delivering services and innovation always stimulates the economy. These companies create a cult following among riders and simultaneously a competitive low cost workforce who keeps the operation running 24/7. Their overhead is minimal. No training, no benefits, no office space needed. If you or that recent college graduate who just boomeranged and now lives in your basement needs some extra cash, you can join the gig economy and become a Lime Juicer or a Bird Hunter or in more prosaic terms a Spin/Jump charger. The only challenge may be getting your own bird out of the nest early enough to make the deliveries. They are supposed to be “released” between 4:00 and 7:00 AM. But, you know what they say about the early bird.

S. Joseph Scott has a Ph.D. in theology and has served in leadership positions in both higher education and religious institutions. He has published in both academic and popular journals and has a special interest in the intersection of faith and culture.