The headlines state that we are in uncertain, and in some ways, unprecedented times.
The Federal Reserve has slashed rates to zero. Quantitative easing is now in place. Governments are making a concerted effort to stop the coronavirus contagion that threatens daily life and daily commerce.
It’s worth digging a little deeper, to find the echoes from where we’ve been, and the clues those echoes might offer for the future.
Because, by and large, we have been here before.
In some ways, the pandemic of 2020 looks a bit like the panic that swept across the globe in 2008, where the risks that threatened economic growth could be traced to mortgage-backed securities and other risky loans.
Since then, the workforce’s very landscape has shifted toward the gig economy and the online platforms that bring employers and professionals together. In an interview with Karen Webster, Field Nation’s CEO Mynul Khan said that, by and large, the U.S. workforce is positioned to weather the storm.
Nowadays, the overwhelming majority of employers — about 80 percent — use a “blended” mix of employees, spanning traditional W-2 workers, contractors and vendors. And for Khan, who started Field Nation in the wake of the Great Recession — during which many small businesses shuttered — that gig work has become the full-time career of many of the skilled technicians that populate the platform.
The company matches supply and demand for a range of onsite work orders, such as ATM repair, electrical work, server repair, audio visual work (for home theaters, for example) and other verticals.
And looking back, he told Webster, “though the Great Recession was a catalyst for us, when the recession was over, we did not see a pull back.”
And to get a sense of just how fundamental the change has been, he added, although we may be at multi-decade lows in terms of unemployment, he said that Field Nation’s business has been at the highest levels as has ever been seen. (Of course, if widespread, global shutdowns are in the offing, Field Nation and pretty much everyone else would be negatively impacted.)
By matching companies with technicians across a work order-based system, the technician can update and close out a project. Upon approval from the client firm, Field Nation pays the technician right away, across a variety of payment offerings, including ACH, paper check and PayPal — a boon when individuals may be worried about their cash positions now more than ever as more than 1 million work orders are completed annually by more than 100,000 technicians.
The New Normal
“This the new normal now,” he said. “People are choosing to do this, not because they are forced to do this.”
The “new normal” extends to the employers, too, he said, using an analogy.
“If I just need ‘cold,’ I don’t need to buy a refrigerator,” he said, which means that companies are not looking to build out infrastructure, or maintain it, when they can opt instead to get reliable service on demand, or on a project basis. It’s a mindset that found entrenchment in the wake of the financial crisis when companies across all industries took a hard look at their core competencies (and margins).
And with an eye on the impact of the virus, this time around, said Khan, the economy was strong heading into the current year. And although there may be some challenges tied to the original equipment manufacturers who have seen some difficulty getting shipments out of China, by and large, Field Nation’s firms are not afraid of having technicians come in, as, after all, the lights need to stay on, and equipment needs to function.
“Our type of work is hardware-centric,” he told Webster, “and it’s not software, which can be done remotely.”
He noted, too, with an eye on macro developments, in a “normal” recession, general capex (tied to upgrades) may decline, but unplanned work still is a feature of corporate life.
"So, I think in a normal recession, our technicians are not going to be affected at all,” he said. “If anything, I think we're going to see probably more work coming our way."
There have been some measures taken in the age of the coronavirus, though. As Khan said, Field Nation has been asking clients who hire technicians to consider the timing of their jobs, and perhaps schedule them during off hours when there are relatively fewer people around.
Thinking back to 2008, and looking ahead, Khan said that a number of lessons carry over across the decades, including the need to focus on value added to end customers, and then double down on it.
“In a time of crisis, good things get magnified, just as bad things do,” he said. “We saw that in 2008, and we’ll see that this time around as well.”