Unconventional Jobs

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Mar 14, 2012    •    616 Views

By Mira Korber, guest blogger.

Repairing the US employment situation will prove a long battle. As you read yesterday, at current growth rates, it could take eight years for American employment to fully recover.

Out of this labor morass, an unusual employment opportunity arose for 13 homeless people. BBH marketing company hired them as human 4G wi-fi hotspots at the South by Southwest technology conference this March. The company called its project a “charitable experiment.”

The job description? Go to densely packed places at the conference, and offer relief to overburdened cellular data networks. The pay? $20 per day, plus donations and the opportunity to share their homeless stories with conference attendees.

Controversy surrounds the program, with some critics calling it exploitative and inhumane. By contrast, homeless Shelter director Mitchell Gibbs noted that the “homeless hotspots” employment program had actually fostered an “entrepreneurial spirit” among homeless residents.  The participants themselves offer their (positive) feedback on the program here.

The Economic Lesson

Homeless people have long sold “street newspapers” as an avenue for advancement into permanent housing. Content of the papers usually pertains to poverty and homelessness; the price is usually $1.

The human wireless transmitter is a 21st century street newspaper model. Because the digital age has pressurized hard copy information sales, the street newspaper model faces a changing landscape.

Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction applies. As technology minimizes newspaper sales, it maximizes the need for more Internet availability. Correspondingly, the “street newspaper” model is evolving into the “street wi-fi” model.

An Economic Question: Do you think BBH’s “homeless hotspots” program is exploitative or entrepreneurial?

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