By Ralph Bristol
I remember remarking to ABC business correspondent Richard Davies several years ago that I believed most middle-class Americans, in the not-too-distant future, would work for themselves. I did not know how that might happen. Now I know.
Traditional middle-class jobs in America, especially in manufacturing, are diminishing steadily, mainly because of the advancement of technology, which has duplicated many human skills in computers and other machines, including robotics, that are more cost-efficient and reliable than human labor.
I’ve long accepted the inevitability that – as a jobs producer – the “service” sector of the economy would replace the manufacturing sector, but I wasn’t sure how that was going to meet the financial needs of middle class workers. Can there ever be as much value in “doing” things as there is in “making” things?
The answer is “yes,” in part because even as technology is making things much easier to produce, there has been a simultaneous, if not related, devolution of useful, everyday skills in the average man and woman. More people than ever need (or want) other people to do things for them. And they will pay more than the average manufacturing job for an hour of labor.
Then, along came a new business model to accommodate this evolution in labor. It started with companies like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb, where people could provide personal transportation and lodging to customers as an alternative to taxis and hotels, without having to be a business.
The “sharing economy” marries a huge reservoir of human labor with an equally large demand for a better, or just different, alternative to what’s available through traditional business.
The so-called “sharing economy” created a portal through which millions or workers could earn a living with most of the benefits of a private businessman or woman with very few of the burdens.
Once Uber, Lyft and Airbnb were successful, and managed to navigate regulatory waters, at least in most states and cities, I suspected the business model would explode with nearly infinite new uses.
I believe the “sharing economy” has the potential to be the biggest and most rewarding middle-class jobs producer in history.
Rather than punching a clock, repeating the same motions every day, and being solely dependent on one employer for his or her labor, middle-class workers will be able to choose their job, their hours and their customers, and to a large degree, their income, by the amount of work they are willing to do and how well they do it.
Initially, the “sharing economy” specialized in such things as transportation and lodging. When Uber proved the business model could thrive under existing municipal regulations (in most localities), it opened the door to others who could easily copy the model, and compete in another segment of the economy.
Most people work for large or small business because we either don’t know how to, or simply don’t want to, do anything but the “labor” part of the business. You might be perfectly willing to help build a car, but you don’t want to get involved in any of that stuff the “suits” deal with in the human resources department, legal, accounting, sales, and administration.
So, you work for someone else. We’ve gotten rather dependent on that model in the 20th and 21st Century – so much so that very few of us can actually own and run our own business. Government regulations have also made that much more difficult.
But, businesses (because humans are increasingly expensive, demanding, and unreliable and machines are less expensive, more reliable and rapidly capable of more and more jobs), are almost certainly going to reduce human labor as a part of their expense, requiring more people to work for more than just one employer – that is, to work for a lot of different people – that is, to be their own business – or something close to it.
The “sharing economy,” as it has grown to be known, is expanding rapidly enough to absorb all of the reductions in manufacturing labor needs resulting from both advances in technology and increased (government-imposed) labor-related costs on businesses, large and small.
All this is happening at a time when an increasingly large portion of the U.S. population has lost some of the basic labor skills that were once widespread. There are hundreds of things that someone is willing to do for someone else in exchange for middle-class compensation, if the labor (or provider) and customer could find each other, and the “sharing economy” is that match-maker.
Today, someone is punching the same clock he’s punched for 17 years and it will be his last time because he’s no longer affordable to the company that pays his $60,000 annual salary and benefits. That doesn’t mean he’s worthless. It just means he lost the only customer for his labor that he has relied on for the last 17 years.
How does someone who has relied on the same customer to pay him for the same labor for the last 17 years find a new job in a shrinking job market, while competing with younger applicants?
When I saw the “sharing economy” sprout, I thought I saw the answer.
If riders and rides can find each other with no marketing, administrative, or other expense to the provider of the rides, allowing Uber to handle all of that for a portion of the fare, then why couldn’t the same model apply to nearly every useful talent, labor or other value in the universe?
It can, and I believe it will.
I also believe the next, giant, step toward that dream has begun – and it started in Middle Tennessee – and I get to be a small part of it.
Even as I was having these vague billion-dollar ideas about how to expand the “sharing economy,” a hugely successful businessman who moved to Williamson County from California via Texas, after (and largely because) Jerry Brown was elected governor of California, was doing just that.
His name is Willis Johnson, and back in August last year, he took some of his hundreds of millions that he earned, largely through Copart Inc. (CPRT) and he started TAKL, which, when launched, will be an “Uber-style” service that connects 500 (and growing) different odd jobs with the people who want them done.
In the process, which has grown from an idea to launch since August, Johnson connected with his state senator, Jack Johnson (no relation), to see what regulatory hurdles he would have to either deal with or avoid, depending on the parameters of the labor offered.
Willis wanted nothing from the state – no tax breaks – no financial incentives – but in doing his due diligence for a company in which he was going to invest millions – he wanted to know about any potentially burdensome regulations, and Jack was not only his state senator, but chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, a small business owner himself, and a logical choice for a good tour guide through any potential labyrinth of state government hurdles.
Along the way, Sen. Johnson and Willis Johnson became friends and Jack became so smitten with the project that he hinted his way onto the ground floor as the head of Public Relations and Marketing for TAKL, which will launch in the Nashville Market before it expands farther, and because God is good, Jack Johnson asked WTN if I would consider TAKL as a sponsor worthy of my personal endorsement.
Okay, let me consider.
We have an owner who escaped the over-taxation of California and brought his millions to Middle Tennessee (he bought the Alan Jackson estate for $28 million). He has a plan – and all the personal capital necessary – to fulfil my dream of the next big, middle-class jobs producer. Oh and by the way, Willis is a fellow Vietnam Veteran and maintains a strong affinity for the military.
So, to review: He wants me to help him fulfil this dream, starting in my city, in my state, and he’s not asking the taxpayers anything in return? And he wants to pay me for my services? Gee, I don’t know. Should I do that?
I don’t know why I deserve this, but I know I want to keep doing what I did to deserve it.
There’s a really good chance that, if I live long enough, maybe 10 years, maybe 15, I’ll be able to look at my young teenage great granddaughter Olivia, and be able to tell her, “see that company there – TAKL? The one that makes Amazon, Google, and Walmart look like small businesses? I helped start that company.”
That will be an exaggeration, of course, but I’ll be 80 years old then, and a little exaggeration is allowed.
Even though I’m passionate about public policy and take delight in the few victories I score in that arena, nothing is more rewarding about this job than being on the ground floor of a successful new business, and to play even a small hand in that success.
Now, I get to help launch what I think could be the biggest expansion of the most promising middle-class jobs producing “new economy” in the history of the United States.
So, when you hear me do live ads for TAKL, if you have any doubt that I mean what I’m saying, disabuse yourselves of those doubts right now.
I believe I’ll look back at TAKL as one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me, with the possible exception of meeting Marianna and babysitting my 2-year-old great-granddaughter, Olivia.