Some turn to 'Mechanical' job search

Mechanical Turk screenshot

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: We'll get the monthly unemployment figures on Thursday. The Labor Department is expected to announce that the economy shed hundreds of thousands of jobs in June. Many of the newly unemployed are using their computers to make a few bucks. Some are turning to a service by Amazon.com called "Mechanical Turk." The Web site is billed as an online marketplace where employers and workers can find each other. It's a good deal for companies. But it can be a tough way to make a living, as Joel Rose discovered.


JOEL ROSE: I wanted to find out if these workers are using Mechanical Turk as a substitute for a traditional job. So I did what any employer would do to find workers on the site.

I wrote a description of the job, and I offered money. It wasn't very much, just five cents for anyone who completed a short survey. By the next morning, I had 100 replies. More than a dozen people said yes, they're trying to replace income from a lost job.

DOUG Clore: If you're going to be on the Internet anyway, you might as well find someone to pay you for it.

Doug Clore is one of those people. He lives in St. Joseph, Mich. Clore heard about Mechanical Turk from his son at college. When Clore lost his job at Whirlpool this year, he decided to give Turking a try.

Clore: If you devoted the right amount of time to it, and figured out a plan, you could probably make a little money at this. So that's why I tried to run with it just a little bit.

At last count, more than 200,000 people had registered to work on the site. Employers post hundreds of tasks a day. Surveys, proof-reading, and transcription are some of the most popular. Essentially, employers are out-sourcing work to a crowd. The theory is that by giving the exact same task to lots of different people, the employer can be reasonably sure it's getting done right.

SHARON Chiarella: This is really a new paradigm for how works gets done. And I think that is definitely something we'll see more and more of.

That's Amazon VP Sharon Chiarella. She says the online retailer originally developed Mechanical Turk as an in-house tool to vet the data in its own catalogue for consistency because computers alone couldn't do it.

Chiarella: We had algorithms certainly to do part of that. But we really couldn't get it 100 percent clean without some human being looking at some of the data, some of the information and making some judgment calls.

Amazon figured other companies might be in the same spot. So it opened Mechanical Turk to the public in 2005, and started charging employers a 10 percent commission. The service gets its name from an 18th-century chess-playing "machine" that actually had a person inside moving the chess pieces.

Amazon is more transparent about the people behind its Mechanical Turk. Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer and science fiction novelist near Dallas, Texas. She started Turking after her husband lost his job last fall.

TAMARA Wilhite: It is very useful as a supplemental income. That's something that I do after I put my own children to bed, who are 3 and 6 years old. I would not use this is a replacement to a job.

Wilhite says she works about 20 hours a month, and makes up to $125. All of the Turkers I spoke to agreed that it would be really difficult to support yourself this way. There are no benefits. For some low-skill tasks, the compensation works out to less than minimum wage. On the other hand, Amazon VP Sharon Chiarella says the hours are extremely flexible. And some jobs do pay upwards of $10 an hour.

Chiarella: The workers who've worked longer for us have definitely become efficient. And tend to work for specific types of work where they can make more money.

Mark King of Manchester, N.Y., just started Turking a few weeks ago. He's putting in about 10 hours a week while he looks for a full-time job in construction. King says the wages may be low, but they're better than nothing.

MARK King: Most people sit and play around on the computer, play different games all day long, and they get nothing for it. At least this, you get a little bit in return.

King is hoping to put away enough money to buy Christmas presents for his wife and kids.

I'm Joel Rose, for Marketplace.

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