Inside Florida’s Gig Economy | Charlotte County Florida Weekly


 

IN 2007, IPHONES APPEARED on the market. In 2009, Apple opened the app store. Now, software app developers are projected to be one of the fastest growing jobs in the Sunshine State over the next decade, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Some of those apps themselves, such as Twitter and Instagram, have opened new jobs for public relations professionals and “brand influencers.” Others such as Uber and Shipt have given rise to jobs in what is sometimes called “The Gig Economy.”

Unrelated to Gig jobs, the medical cannabis industry is another up-and-coming player in Florida with retail stores continuing to open in communities across the state.

These jobs have all come about in what economist Dr. Christopher Westley said may ultimately be called “The Obama-Trump Expansion.” Since the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, the U.S. economy has enjoyed the longest period of expansion (or recovery) since its business cycles began being measured more than 150 years ago.

Jared Stresen-Reuter works as an app entrepreneur. COURTESY PHOTO

Jared Stresen-Reuter works as an app entrepreneur. COURTESY PHOTO

It has been fueled along with traditional jobs by an increase in Gig Economy jobs, especially those related to technology, said Dr. Westley, a Florida Gulf Coast University professor and director of the Regional Economic Research Institute.

“I think they’re probably at a record level now, and I expect them to grow even more in the future,” said Dr. Westley. “What the technology is doing is it vastly lowers the cost of connecting buyers and sellers of services, primarily.”

Gig Economy jobs offer tradeoffs compared to traditional jobs. Health insurance policies, paid vacation time and benefits like 401K plans mostly are not available. But the jobs offer more freedom and independence.

New jobs also help strengthen and diversify the economy, Dr. Westley added, potentially helping shield it from the next period of recession. South Florida’s economy, which has long been heavily dependent on real estate, tourism and agriculture, tends to grow more quickly during periods of expansion but slow down more quickly during downturns.

Alyson Seligman works as a social media marketing influencer. COURTESY PHOTO

Alyson Seligman works as a social media marketing influencer. COURTESY PHOTO

“I would expect that to happen again during the next recession, which we’re overdue for, I might add,” said Dr. Westley. “And what will happen in the next recession is companies will stop hiring or only offer more part-time work than full-time work, and so these kinds of jobs will become more important.”

Here’s a look into the lives of South Floridians working new jobs in a new economy.

Social media marketing, public relations specialist

Palm Beach Gardens resident Alyson Seligman, 39, recalled that, when she entered the public relations and communications industry after earning undergraduate and master’s degrees, Instagram didn’t exist.

Now she has 18,800,000 followers on the site, which allows her to earn income as a brand “influencer” by posting about products or services she likes. Those services are related to her inspirational lifestyle blog, The Modern Savvy, which she began in 2010 along with her PR company, The SBS Agency. You can add motivational speaker to her list of professional activities as well.

DISALVO

DISALVO

One area in which she is employed by businesses includes brand campaigns, such as one that highlighted Walmart fashions. She negotiated a contract with the company that included blog and Instagram posts that shared stories of fashion and beauty finds at Walmart. She also modeled the clothes; and crucially, the advertisements must be written in her own voice.

“Very rarely do brands come back and edit the content,” she said, unless they must, such as for legal reasons. “They always want it to be in your voice.”

Roughly, brands pay $100 per Instagram post per 10,000 followers; Ms. Seligman has found, though, that could vary widely. She also gets a commission when people click on links to products on her blog, which she clearly notes on the site.

Needless to say, her many roles keep her busy. A typical workday could begin around 6 a.m., getting her two children off to school before keeping up with emails, working on a brand campaign, writing press releases, taking photographs or working with photographers, managing her company, negotiating contracts and making pitches.

Naples resident Bill Devine works as a full-time Uber driver. VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY

Naples resident Bill Devine works as a full-time Uber driver. VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY

After some internet intensive work, Ms. Seligman has found that face-to-face time also has its rewards.

“I’m getting into motivational speaking,” she said. “I absolutely love the ability to connect with women in a room in front of people, looking in their eyes.”

App entrepreneur

During his senior year at Palm Beach Atlantic University where he studied marketing and entrepreneurship, Jared Stresen-Reuter entered the school’s “Shark Tank”-like contest in which an investor awarded him $10,000 to bring his idea for an events app to the market. He still has the oversized check on display near his desk along with a shelf crammed full of sports bobbleheads, in a bright, second-floor office space above a restaurant in Naples, the city he grew up in.

PATEL

PATEL

Developing the app had been a “terrible experience” in some ways, such as working with software developers who overcharged for services, he said, lessons he applied to improving services when he opened his current app development company, Divine Digital, in 2016. The company initially offered other services, such as web design, but in finding that market saturated has focused almost solely on app development in the last year.

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Mr. Stresen-Reuter, 29, pointed out some of the apps the company has developed, their screenshots displayed on the wall. Eggspire tracks when your food expires. Taäg is a new way to communicate with people who are nearby. Pet Pals is like Instagram for pets. Know God helps you keep track of your faith-based goals. Sun Sense provides advice on sun protection. There are many more.

While he works with clients in listening to their pitches for apps, helping flesh out their ideas and create a blueprint, he doesn’t do the software design himself.

Ron Robinson shoots drone photos and videos. COURTESY PHOTO

Ron Robinson shoots drone photos and videos. COURTESY PHOTO

“I don’t consider myself to be like a tech geek,” he said.” I like building businesses and brands and concepts.”

The app’s final creation ultimately falls to Edgar Pascacio, director of development, who works with a team of five to 10 software developers at any one time out of Divine Digital’s office in El Salvador. That outsourcing helps keep the company’s prices down. When it comes to hiring app software developers, ability and up-to-the-minute knowledge can count more than degrees. Four-year degrees, rather than an intensive short-term coding school, may even leave applicants behind the times.

“It doesn’t matter if they have a degree nowdays,” Mr. Stresen-Reuter said. “I like people who don’t have a degree because they’re not stuck in certain ways.”

One of the challenges for his company will be managing the coming changes in app technology with the advent of virtual reality technology, which may be just on the cusp of developing a mainstream following.

SEO expert

Where your company ranks on a Google search and its presence on the web can be boosted by search engine optimization experts, such as those at BlowFish SEO, a full-service internet marketing firm based in Palm Beach County, said owner Robert DiSalvo, 54. Though he described himself as an early internet adopter who hadbeen creating an online presence for individuals and businesses for more than 25 years, Mr. DiSalvo saw the current idea of SEO services coming about only within the last decade.

“As the web became more congested and filled with similar businesses, people started to realize that they had to compete and started looking for an edge, which is an SEO,” he said. “They started looking on their own, they tried doing it themselves, they didn’t understand the algorithms and they started hiring outside sources.”

Having that internet connectivity comes at a cost. Businesses pay anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000 per month and up for Blowfish services, depending on factors such as if they want to have more of a presence locally or nationally. He said the industry has spawned many frauds.

“You can’t just buy SEO for $200 per month and expect to do anything. Those are people who use automated approaches and are really not doing anything for you.”

The job requires an in-depth and up-to-the-minute knowledge of algorithms used in features such as Google Maps and technical skills such as understanding website structure, Mr. DiSalvo said, as well as an “analytical” mindset. He said SEO experts can make between $70,000 and $110,000. Some successful SEOs working for his company have a doctorate in computer science, though it’s not required. For his company, he does generally require those with at least seven to 10 years of SEO experience.

“Google is constantly turning out algorithm changes, and you’ve got to be able to move with it quickly,” he said. “I’ve seen SEOs who have taken six-month breaks and come back, and it takes them a year-and-a-half to two years to really get back into the flow.”

Full-time Uber driver

Naples resident Bill Devine, 45, has worked in the service industry throughout his life, be it as a restaurant cook or server in Concord, Mich., where he grew up, or a few years ago as a pizza delivery driver in Southwest Florida. About a year and a half ago, he and his girlfriend took a trip to Las Vegas where he found it was easy to get around by Uber.

Upon his return, he decided the Naples area would offer a good clientele for an Uber driver, and the advantages of working for himself could be just as or more profitable and offer more freedom than reporting to a boss.

“Within like two weeks to a month I was doing it full-time,” he said.

It’s an independent contractor position with certain requirements, such as a criminal background check, an undamaged car with four doors and insurance. Soon his Uber app was up and ready.

“You pretty much turn it on, and the rides start coming in,” he said. “It’s literally the easiest thing I’ve ever done” (which he attributes in part to GPS guiding him to nearly any address). “During the busy season it will give you rides just one right after another.”

Easy doesn’t mean not working hard, however. Typically, he starts work in the early to mid-afternoon, taking restaurant workers to their jobs or travelers to Southwest Florida International Airport. His days often end early the next morning, taking people home from the night out at a bar.

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He estimates making $15 to $25 per hour in total. On his busiest week he worked 60 hours and made $1,800. He keeps 100 percent of tips as well as 75 percent of Uber’s base fare. His costs include gas and maintenance on his vehicle.

During the slow season now, he and his girlfriend are planning some vacation time, including trips to Prague and Rome. Mr. Devine points out that since his girlfriend also has a full-time job, Uber doesn’t entirely pay for these trips, but it allows him the flexibility and freedom to take them whenever he decides to.

More recently he upgraded his 2011 Chevy Impala to a 2019 Toyota Corolla (and not only because of Uber). One of the most challenging aspects of the job, as service industry employees know, is other people.

“You have to be a people person,” Mr. Devine said. “And I wouldn’t recommend this to someone who can’t deal with intoxicated people. You have to know how to have fun with them. At the same time it is your vehicle, and you have to make sure how people are acting is a respectable way to act. 99.9 percent of the people are real easy to deal with. There’s always that 1 percent you kind of have to lay down the law with.”

Regional operations manager for medical cannabis retailer

With thousands of new patients signing up for Florida medical marijuana ID cards each month, retailers that dispense the products doctors suggest to their patients — be it cannabis-laced oils, edibles or smokable buds — are opening across the state like, well, weeds.

Among those companies, Curaleaf has opened shops throughout Florida, including in Bonita Springs, Fort Myers, in Port Charlotte starting Sept. 1, and soon in the Sarasota area. The company operates in 12 states with 44 dispensaries (two dozen in Florida).

Tampa resident and Curaleaf regional operations manager Vinit Patel, 33, oversees the company’s retail stores throughout the Sunshine State.

Only a handful of states had approved medical cannabis in 2011 after Mr. Vinit graduated from pharmacy college. Hailing from New York, Mr. Patel ended up following a job and his parents in moving to Tampa. He worked there as a traditional pharmacist, which he said made for an “easy and lateral move” to the cannabis industry, along with on-the-job training on the effects of various medical cannabis products.

“Some states do require pharmacists to be in the store dispensing,” he said. “Florida is not one of those states. However, Curaleaf does operate in some of those states, so they thought it would be a nice skill set to bring in to those establishments to run dispensaries here in Florida.”

His salary is in line with that of a senior retail manager who oversees multiple stores, he said, and the job includes often being on the road, helping manage and open new stores and focusing on sales, performance coaching and personnel development.

Mr. Patel was never satisfied with his ability to help patients working with pills manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry and is energized by taking a part in the fast-growing medical cannabis field.

“More and more people are turning away from conventional medicine with pills to this more natural approach, and that’s what excites me and keeps me engaged,” he said.

Drone pilot

Ron Robinson, 45, lives in Utica, Mich., but gets to South Florida regularly to visit family and friends in West Palm Beach and Fort Myers — as well as customers of his full-service video marketing business, Ron Robinson Studios.

“Being from Michigan I’m not a snowbird yet, but I’m working on it,” he said.

One of his most popular services has become aerial shots from drones, which requires becoming a certified drone pilot for business purposes under FAA’s Small UAS Rule (Part 107). The means passing a detailed $250, 60-question multiple choice test that quizzes applicants on aspects of aviation, such as the rules and regulations of flight and reading weather reports.

In Mr. Robinson’s experience, the drone shots have become especially popular in the real estate industry, but they are widely sought out by just about any type of businesses.

“Next week I have an aerial shot for a funeral home,” he said. “Just about everybody can use it, especially with social media being so prominent these days.”

Having worked in television and then in radio, writing and producing commercials as well as reporting as an on-air personality, he developed a wide skill set. But work dried up during the recession. In 2010, he decided to put his skills to use running his current business, which took on drones as the market developed.

“My wife bought me my first drone in 2012 just for fun,” he said. “And when I started implementing it in my productions it was a no brainer, just another thing I could add to my services.”

His passion for movies and attention to details such as lighting and framing adds to his ability in creating video campaigns for his clients. Among his favorite directors are Orson Wells and Francis Ford Coppola; one of the things he admires is the way they use soaring crane shots.

“I can’t afford a crane, but I can afford a drone,” he said. ¦





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