The Uber effect: On-demand services reshaping workforce in McHenry County, nation

If you need a ride and have the Uber app, Crystal Lake resident Dereck Mwalongo is available at the push of a button to get you where you need to go.

About two months ago, Mwalongo decided to forego his job delivering for a pharmacy in favor of driving for the ride-sharing service. He now makes a decent wage without being tied to a work schedule – he can drop his children off at school before starting his workday.

“It was a much better deal,” Mwalongo said. “You can do stuff when you want, and that’s what attracted me, Make your own timetable, when you want to work, and so forth.”

Mwalongo and others like him are part of what experts are calling a surging “on-demand economy” that is bringing information technology together with freelance workers to supply whatever services people need, when they need it. And it’s not just for getting a personalized ride to the store or the airport.

The Handy app hooks up customers seeking home repair or cleaning services with maids or repair experts. Need groceries delivered? Contact Instacart. And some companies, such as Pager and Medicast, are working to bring back the house call by developing apps to bring doctors to patients.

While many of these on-demand app services are available predominantly in large cities, it’s likely only a matter of time before they are just as ubiquitous in the suburbs. What that will do to the workforce is something experts and the government are just starting to grasp.

McHenry County Economic Development Corp. President Pam Cumpata said an attorney she talked to several months ago brought up ride-sharing and whether people one day will be able to summon legal counsel at the courthouse with the push of a button.

“I think [on-demand work] is going to be a continued evolution, and as a society, we’re going to have to figure out how that works,” Cumpata said.

While the ongoing state budget impasse has prompted the suspension of many of its programs, the McHenry County Workforce Network has been looking to adapt its entrepreneurial training so job seekers can take better advantage of this growing market, Director Julie Courtney said. She called it an opportunity to make it easier for people who seek more flexibility and want more independence than what traditional, 9-to-5 employment offers.

“In my opinion, it’s about being self-motivated, being my own boss, being able to pick my own hours and pick and choose what jobs I do,” Courtney said.

Cumpata said her concern is how many of these new on-demand jobs in McHenry County will offer living wages and access to benefits. Despite this growth, she does not see the end of bringing brick-and-mortar employers to the area any time soon.

“There will always be careers where you physically have to be at a location. You can’t be a Centegra doctor or nurse and perform surgery at the beach. You can’t be Scot Forge and forging steel or welding a new kind of storage box remotely,” Cumpata said.

But on-demand work is suiting Mwalongo just fine, he said late Wednesday morning as he was preparing to go out and pick up passengers in the afternoon.

“You can call [for a ride] whenever you want, when you’re ready,” he said. “The smartphone is doing everything for us.”