What is microwork and what does it mean for our work with newcomers?

I’m doing some work as part of a team looking into the phenomenon of microwork in Toronto for the Toronto Workforce Innovation Group (TWIG). If you’re not familiar with the term microwork, you’re not alone. You’re likely familiar with the notion of the gig economy. Think of microwork as the hidden, service-based, and most precarious work of the gig economy. It also goes by the following names:

  • ghost work
  • microtasking
  • crowdsourcing for pay
  • micro jobs
  • digital labour
  • human-based computation

Our working definition of microwork is:

  • Microwork is not part of the standard employment relationship (i.e.: someone is not an ’employee’ making a wage).
  • The work involves taking on short tasks (i.e. 15 minutes to a few hours).
  • A microworker usually takes on a variety of different tasks from a variety of different firms/people.
  • Microtasks are found and undertaken on an internet platform.

Microwork is not just work that is small or different. We have also focused on the kind of microwork that is crowdsourced or ‘spliced’ onto other ways of earning. It also has a connection with AI, logistics, and machine learning. 

It’s fascinating. Truly.

Our research team specifically is looking at the situation related to microworking in Toronto. More broadly, I’ve been wondering where microwork might fit into a newcomer’s labour market experience and evolution. Could it be part of a new wave of survival jobs? Can someone move from microwork for income to more sophisticated gig economy work on a career trajectory commensurate with their skills and experience? If your employer is a web platform, how can you demonstrate “Canadian experience,” get employer references? Where does microwork fit into the future of work for newcomers? For immigrant and refugee-serving and employment agencies?

There’s a clear need for employment and other human service agencies to help job seekers navigate the microwork reality. The labour market is changing, so service providers need to balance employer and client needs. Ultimately, if this is an emerging trend, service providers wonder: how can my agency prepare clients for microwork? We have to know to inform our clients and work with employers.

When it comes to microwork, agencies have more questions than answers.

Here’s what I know so far

Microwork is still relatively unfamiliar to community employment service providers I’ve been talking to. Employment and other human service agencies need to help job seekers navigate what appears to be an emerging labour market reality in Toronto. It’s a challenge.

Right now, we don’t have all the answers to all the questions about microwork. Not surprisingly, we are finding more questions than answers as a result of this project. Over time, however, the veil is being lifted on a hidden, but growing segment of the gig economy. All the signals collected for this project suggest that we should be paying close attention.

Human service agencies are curious to know more about microtasking platforms. They also want to know whether the employers they work with use microtasking in their supply chain.

Here are some things for you to consider as you get up to speed on microwork.

Q1: What do clients need to know about microtasking? 

Service providers want to know to prepare clients. If clients do want to explore microwork as their main income source or as a side gig:

  • How should we prepare clients for microwork?
  • What skills will be useful?
  • What is the technology requirement?
  • How do you look for microwork?
  • What are legit platforms?
  • Are there risks, pitfalls, etc.?
  • What are microwork employers (or “requestors”) looking for
  • Other than IT skills, how to prepare to be a microworker? 

My research colleague, Alastair Cheng, has noted that the employers and industries currently using these platforms are primarily tech companies.

If microwork is on the rise, service providers need to understand what IT clients need to know. How do service providers prepare clients with IT experience?

Moreover, not just as potential microworkers. Is it possible they will be doing the outsourcing for the company that employs them?

Q2: Is microwork that big a deal?

It’s hard to know how big microwork is, or is going to be in the city.

So, how much should human service agencies with limited resources give their attention to microwork in Toronto?

Q3: How do you prove the work you’ve done?

For reporting purposes, most agencies are focused on getting someone a full-time job. So that’s the measure of program success. Microwork disconnects workers from employers. They work on tasks, on a web portal (or app) and are never in contact with employers/requestors. Will a funder see employment success in a client you helped get microwork (or even higher skilled gig work)?

How do you document this type of work? What proof does a worker have that they did work for a company? Microworkers work through the portal and cannot get references. But, employers are still looking for traditional references.

Q4: How do I address questions about microwork with employers?

The Internet Institute’s members have produced relevant research such as Platform Sourcing: How Fortune 500 Firms Are Adopting Online Freelancing Platforms. Employment service agencies are well versed in the broader gig economy and are preparing clients for this shifting work reality. But the conversation about microwork or task-based work hasn’t come up.

Employment service agencies work with employers and connect them with talent. Is microwork an area where they want to build suppliers? Can agencies help source microwork talent? What’s the potential role here?

Microwork is not traditional full-time employment. How can service providers talk to employers about microwork? It would be helpful to work with them. If they’re looking for this type of worker, then agencies can prepare clients for that reality. 

Q5: Should we cover questions about microwork in our employment training programs?

Employment service providers update information, curriculum, and workshops to ensure clients have the most accurate picture of the local labour market. They are also starting to provide training on the higher-skilled aspects of gig work. Should they incorporate microwork into their training programs?

These are all important questions our community and city needs to be able to answer, sooner rather than later.

Follow along as we work on future scenarios of microwork and identify the implications that microwork might have on life in Toronto (and beyond), the workforce, and workforce development. Please connect with us if you have questions, want to share expertise, or be involved in the project! 

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