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Making It Work: What The Side Hustle Is Like In St. Louis

Bob Ell (at left) drives for Uber and Lyft on top of his full-time job at UMSL. William Frazier (center) did freelance work full-time until just a few months ago when he accepted a more traditional position with a company. SLU's Matt Grawitch is director
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Moonlighting, freelancing, working a second job, picking up a side hustle – all of these terms and cobbled-together career strategies have become common themes in an ever-changing 21st-century economy. And many people in the St. Louis region are among those who have adopted such an approach to making a living.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh led a discussion about such labor trends, digging into the reasons behind them.

Joining the discussion were Bob Ell, a full-time University of Missouri-St. Louis staff member who also regularly drives for Uber and Lyft; William Frazier, a locally based designer, writer, founder and self-described “productive fumbler”; and Matt Grawitch, director of strategic research for St. Louis University’s School of Professional Studies.

Grawitch said that estimates vary – “somewhere between 30 and 40 percent” – when it comes to just how much of the U.S. workforce is engaging in side hustles of one kind or another.

“It really depends on how you talk about people who are engaged in the side hustle,” the professor said. “Some people are working a full-time job and engage in these side gigs in order to supplement their income … other folks cobble together multiple [gigs] and use those for the bulk of their income, and a third group of people [have] either retired or someone else in the household works a full-time job and they have one of these side gigs to help supplement the income that’s generated.”

Frazier, a millennial who graduated from college in 2011 with concentrations in design and business, has typically found himself among that second category of people. Soon after college he decided he wasn’t quite sold on entering the traditional full-time workforce.

“I just was never really satisfied with the opportunities that I saw in terms of either full-time employment or going to grad school after college – it’s a huge investment in time and money – or even getting a traditionally unpaid internship,” he said. “I feel like there are other opportunities that aren’t really stressed as much.”

He started freelancing full time in St. Louis after college and continued to do so until taking a full-time position several months ago with a company called Slalom where he works with corporate clients. When Marsh asked whether he is happier now in a more traditional setting, Frazier responded that it “has allowed [him] to work smarter, not harder.”

“I have less time outside of my nine-to-five, but that time is used much more intentionally,” Frazier said. “And I think I’m making a lot more long-term, smarter decisions for me both businesswise but also, I think, it helps provide a little more work-life balance personally, too.”

Ell, who is a coordinator for International Studies and Programs at UMSL, has been driving for Uber and Lyft since their respective entries into the St. Louis market as way to supplement his primary income.

“A lot of my passengers ask me [why], and the answer I usually give them is [that] I enjoy money and I would like more of it,” Ell said with a laugh. “But [it’s] mostly to pad my savings, to build up a fund for unexpected expenses – home repairs [or] maybe I have to go to the dentist, get a crown or something – just things like that that in the past caused a lot of stress and that I know cause a lot of stress for a lot of folks. Now it’s not nearly as stressful, because I have some money put away, and Uber and Lyft have helped me do that.”

"In the beginning when there were fewer [Uber and Lyft] drivers, it was fairly easy to make a few hundred dollars a week. Now that there are more drivers who have entered the gig economy in St. Louis, it's a little more difficult to make that kind of money."

He said he averages about 10 driving hours per week and puts in most of those hours on the weekend.

“In the beginning when there were fewer drivers, it was fairly easy to make a few hundred dollars a week,” Ell added. “Now that there are more drivers who have entered the gig economy in St. Louis, it’s a little more difficult to make that kind of money. So I try to work smarter rather than harder – I have a good amount of experience doing this, and I kind of try to know where to go and when to be there.”

For members of the workforce who are juggling multiple jobs without benefits such as health insurance and typical employer-based tax- and other financial-related structures in place, the gig economy comes with significant challenges and risks. But Frazier noted that there are some places to turn for resources on those fronts.

“For example, on is called Freelancers Union, and online they help kind of direct and provide benefits and other sort of resources for freelancers and subcontractors,” Frazier said. “And they actually put out a study roughly two years ago, through LinkedIn, that did claim that roughly 43 percent of the workforce is now either classified as a freelancer or subcontractor.”

Another challenge, Grawitch said, is a rapidly evolving job market.

“The economy constantly is shifting in what’s valued, what you can actually use to generate that competitive income and strategic advantage,” he explained. “So a lot of these younger folks, as they’re trying to sort of navigate their way through that, they pick up these different side gigs, piece them together and turn them into full-time employment. Sometimes it lasts for the long term, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

And regardless of people’s strategies toward a livelihood, Grawitch added, the increasing student debt among the workforce often adds another difficult dynamic into the mix, “especially with the predatory institutions that were out there, that were getting these students coming in [and] getting them to take on massive amounts of debt and then giving them degrees that didn’t really guarantee that they would get any reasonable kind of employment.”

“You’ve got a lot of folks out there who do have a lot of debt and don’t necessarily have any kind of good income stream in order to help pay that debt down,” he said. “And it makes it really difficult to actually do anything but tread water – and sometimes even fall behind.”

All three guests acknowledged ongoing challenges as well as possibilities as these labor trends continue.

“I think one of the biggest things when I talk to people who are interested in this sort of career or kind of creating your own path, I do stress the idea of kind of positioning yourself,” Frazier said. “In my mind I think everyone does have a marketable skill, but it’s hard to kind of connect that with an audience or group that needs that marketable skill, so ... I break it down like: Who are you? What skill do you want to provide? To whom do you want to provide that skill … and then how do you translate the value?”

Ell added that it’s important to stay up to date with technology and future opportunities that may come up.

“Ten years ago, nobody had any idea that this would be a way to make a living – Uber and Lyft or other things like Postmates or DoorDash, which are food-delivery apps,” he said. “So I think the challenge, really, is going to be adapting to whatever comes next.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.