Yukonomist: Globalization, not just for manufacturing jobs anymore

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

One of the pandemic’s silver linings was the realization by workers that they could ditch the urban rat race and work remotely from places like the Yukon.

This was already a trend, and the pandemic dramatically accelerated it. You meet people who edit scientific journals, write legal opinions, teach English or code the full stack for bosses thousands of miles away. Numbers are hard to come by, but my guess is that the equivalent of a large mine’s worth of jobs or more are scattered across the Yukon as you read this.

This trend cuts both ways, however.

It also means that people with skills and an internet connection can do a digital job currently being done by a Yukoner.

A Yukonomist reader recently reported that their outfit decided to try the global Upwork platform to get some digital marketing done. Upwork claims to be the world’s largest network of independent professionals. It has freelancers for hire for big or small jobs across design and creative, coding, sales and marketing, writing and translation, accounting, administration and more.

For an upcoming marketing campaign, the Yukon organization needed some work done creating brochures, designing digital advertising material, and executing the campaign online.

All of this could have been done by Yukon digerati. Except that it can be hard to find someone who is not already busy. So they put their requirements on Upwork. Overnight, they had bids from around the world and reviewed proposals from people in Greece, Macedonia, the Philippines, Venezuela, Great Britain, India and Georgia (the country, not the state).

Several of the freelancers shortlisted by Upwork looked credible. Their identities were verified and you could see work samples, client reviews and their star rating from previous clients. Prices ranged from $6 per hour and up. After some hiccups figuring out the time difference between Tbilisi and Whitehorse, the platform helped organize online video interviews.

Like anything on the internet, caution is required. Chatboards abound with reviews of fraudulent employers and incompetent contractors.

Nonetheless, Upwork has been growing fast. There are millions of freelancers on the platform, and they earned US$3.5 billion from 771,000 clients in 2021. That’s up 41 percent versus the year before. The clients range from small organizations to brand-name multinationals. The platform skimmed 14 percent in fees on average from the contracts.

Interestingly, Upwork’s statistics also give some tips to Yukoners who want to develop new skills and change careers or break with the traditional 9-to-5 job routine. The “trending skills” on Upwork include web development, marketing consulting and helping companies use Microsoft Power BI to turn their data into useful reports. Some experienced freelancers consider Upwork a platform with tough competition from people in low-wage countries, but also a good way for a budding freelancer to gain experience and develop clients.

One of the challenges for the remote-work sector in the Yukon is that many of the people who work remotely got their initial experience and client base while living Outside, and they brought these assets with them when they moved to the Yukon. It can be tough for someone already in the Yukon to get their remote career started. Upwork may be a solution to that.

But for established Yukon digital workers, Upwork represents competition.

In some ways, this is similar to how globalization took a big bite out of Canadian manufacturing jobs in the early 2000s. As workers faced layoffs across southern Ontario’s factory belt, other Canadians flocked to buy cheap products from Asia in big-box stores and government officials kept announcing new free-trade pacts.

However painful such competition might be for Yukon digital workers, with Elon Musk’s Starlink broadband internet satellites being launched, not even the backhoe operators of Fort Nelson will be able to cut their Yukon clients off from the internet.

So what does this mean for Yukoners?

For Yukon companies and non-governmental organizations, it means there is a new way to stretch your digital budget farther. As long as you put the effort into finding quality freelancers.

For Yukon digital workers, it’s both new competition and a way to diversify your client base to fill in for the ups and downs of local demand. It’s also a good reminder to think about your price point, and how you can focus on work that pays higher rates and exposes you to less competition from people whose hourly rate is a third the Yukon minimum wage.

For Yukoners choosing a career, it’s also a reminder that some fulfilling and well-paid jobs are largely immune from competition from factory workers in Vietnam or people with internet connections in Georgia. People don’t go to Upwork to hire an electrician, physiotherapist or bush pilot.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.