Latest hot job: Microtasking online

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Some Ohioans make money online by completing countless small tasks, such as filling out short surveys, identifying objects in photos and videos and transcribing audio recordings.

Workers often only earn cents for finishing each task. But there is an endless supply of tasks, and the pay can add up as workers string together enough of them.

Microtasks are among the many work-at-home job opportunities that have proliferated in the Internet age. A growing number of people are working from home, including 176,000 Ohioans and almost 13,000 residents in the Dayton metro area, according to Census data.

Some people said they complete microtasks for pay because the work provides important flexibility and it is suited to their skills and interests.

But some industry experts said the virtual workplace is completely unregulated, and its workers can struggle to earn a living wage because the compensation is so meager.

“It would be difficult if not impossible to earn a living just from the quick tasks these sites ask their workers to complete,” said Starratt Sheetz, a stay-at-home mother in Cincinnati who runs the blog, The Work at Home Reporter. “If anything, it’s for extra pocket cash.”

Allyson Engle, 29, of Springfield, works as a contractor for a medical transcription company, and she reviews and edits doctor’s notes that are fed into a speech recognition program. Her focus is orthopedic clinic work, and she earns about 4 cents for every 65-character line she produces. She completes about 200 of these lines each hour.

Engle also works about 10 hours each weekend for Amazon Mechanical Turk, which is an online labor market run by the massive Internet retail company.

Global workforce

Amazon said Mechanical Turk gives developers and businesses access to a huge workforce — more than 500,000 globally — that can complete tasks that computers cannot or struggle to accomplish.

Mechanical Turk allows companies to “crowdsource,” which is breaking a big project into small parts and then hiring a large number of temporary workers to perform the work.

Amazon said this allows companies to get work done cheaper, because it eliminates overhead and fixed costs associated with needing to employ a more permanent workforce.

Amazon is the platform that connects workers with companies and developers that need work done, and the company charges a commission on transactions.

Nathan McFarland is the founder of CastingWords, a transcription firm located in New Mexico that uses the service.

He said Mechanical Turk allows companies, such as his, to hire extra workers for a big contracts, and then scale back when demand decreases.

“Mechanical Turk gives us access to a large pool of good workers with diverse skill sets,” he said. “It gives us scalability, flexibility and diversity in our workforce, something more traditional means cannot — which has helped us provide a consistent product to our customers.”

Mechanical Turk is one of a growing number of companies that specialize in crowdsourcing and microtasks. Others include CrowdFlower, CrowdSource and CloudCrowd. But Amazon’s company is one of the largest and most well-known.

Engle, who sometimes worked 40 hours or more per week on Mechanical Turk in past years, said she normally searches for general transcription tasks on the website. She has transcribed audio for companies in many fields, including finance, architecture, television and health care.

But Engle also takes a lot of surveys, which usually pay 10 cents per minute.

Graduate students routinely use Mechanical Turk to find people to take surveys for academic research. In August, a University of Dayton graduate student offered $5 on the website if people completed a 30-minute survey on how young men develop role model relationships with media figures.

Engle said online contracting work provides flexibility she needs, because she helps take care of her spouse’s sick relatives and she also suffers from migraines and chronic fatigue. She said she can also travel with her spouse, since she can perform paying work anywhere.

“I can be here with my computer and be here for (my grandfather),” she said. “Anywhere I go, my computer goes.”

Many people who work from home are parents of young children or caregivers.

Challenge to earn income

Engle said she can earn minimum wage or more for every hour she spends online completing various series of tasks.

She said she has made upwards of $10 per hour, but she also only earned about $2 per hour when she first started out. She said she has learned how to identify and avoid tasks that are not worth her time. She tries to find tasks that pay 15 cents per minute, which equates to $9 an hour.

Most crowdsourcing and microtasks do not take more than a few minutes to complete, and the pay can be between 1 cent to $1 for tasks such as copying and pasting relevant results for keyword searches and completing surveys, said Sheetz, owner of the Work at Home Reporter blog.

Crowdsourcing and microtasks are a good way for people to supplement their incomes, but people need to be realistic about how much they can earn doing virtual work, she said.

The people who earn a living on these websites have worked their way up the ladder, and they have passed qualification tests and earned special statuses that make them eligible for more higher-paying work, she said.

“Getting paid 10 cents a task, even if it is a quick task taking a minute or two, is not going to pay a living wage here in the United States,” she said. “People need to learn to do the math and realize what they are getting into.”

Miriam Cherry, a professor of law with the St. Louis University School of Law, said she and her research assistant spent about 40 hours each trying to make minimum wage completing simple tasks on Mechanical Turk.

They never got close to that goal.

“We were making somewhere around $2 to $3 per hour,” she said. “It is very hard to try to make money on these websites.”

Companies that pay for microtasks would have to pay minimum wage if they had to hire U.S. employees to work in a traditional office setting, she said. Many would also have to pay health benefits and other employment-related costs.

But businesses have no incentive to pay decent wages for virtual work because the online labor force has no protections under current application of federal labor laws, she said. Businesses also can choose not to pay workers if they decide the work did not meet expectations, and workers do not have a dispute-resolution system in which to turn, she said. The Internet gives companies access to digital workforce that is spread across the globe, many of whom live in countries where $2 to $3 an hour is good pay.

“There is no regulation at all, and this is a completely different situation than any labor-employment problem we’ve seen before,” Cherry said.

Cherry said she believes U.S. legislators ultimately will have to address the labor issues raise by the virtual market, possibly by clarifying or amending the Fair Standards Labor Act to make the law catch up with rapidly changing technology. She said the crowdsourcing industry could address this issue on its own by creating some best practices to ensure workers are not exploited.

So far, that has not happened.

TYPES OF ONLNE MICROTASKS JOBS AND PAY

Task

Pay for completing each task

Answer 17 questions about your shopping habits15 cents

Enter a keyword into a search engine and then document what results are returned6 cents

Search for hotels in some cities for specific dates, and then document the rating, reviews, hotel class and price per night of some results5 cents

Record what you ate for breakfast, using as much detail as possible5 cents

Copy text from a business card2 cents

View an image of a T-shirt and check boxes of products that are duplicates1 cent

Source: Amazon Mechanical Turk

More online: Our coverage doesn’t end here. Read more stories about jobs and the economy at MyDaytonDailyNews.com/business

Staff writer Cornelius Frolik provides in-depth coverage of the Ohio economy, including the extent people go to find jobs.

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