Analog Trades in a Digital World: The Platformization of In-Person Service Work

Publication Date


Grant Type

Early Career Research Award


Although numerous state and federal programs aim to support entrepreneurship and workforce development, current policies may be falling short in the face of rapid technological advancements. Whereas ride-hail and delivery platforms have received much attention from researchers, few if any studies have examined how digital labor platforms shape the experiences of skilled professionals providing in-person services in sectors including home improvement (e.g. landscapers, plumbers), event services (e.g. wedding photographers, DJs), wellness (e.g. personal trainers, beauticians), and lessons (e.g. guitar teachers, math tutors). The lack of research in this area is surprising, considering the continued growth of freelance work in the United States, increasing demand for in-person services, and small businesses' crucial role in creating pathways into the middle class. Addressing the gap in current knowledge, this project will use 160 in-depth interviews and a nationally representative survey to systematically investigate platform dynamics and worker outcomes. Discovering who is successfully using platforms to grow their businesses will help us uncover how their efforts can be duplicated, while learning about those who are left behind will help us better understand the barriers to success. The answers we uncover will have critical policy implications. Our rich qualitative data on workers’ experiences entering and navigating digital platforms can be leveraged to guide the expansion of workforce development programs to include training on the effective use of these new digital tools. Equally important is the potential for our research to uncover hidden drivers of inequality that can inform new regulatory measures.