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Need cash and a career? Be a ‘micro entrepreneur’

Websites like Ask for Task give young people a chance to boost their career and network while making some money.

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Like many young people, Sara Aly found herself grappling with unemployment last spring after graduating with an advanced diploma in human resources from Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont.

"After you graduate it takes a while to find a job, and in the process – it happens to everybody – you get frustrated," said the 23-year old.

Ms. Aly began looking for a job when a friend introduced her to Ask for Task, an online marketplace that allows "askers" to solicit "taskers" to do work, at a negotiated price, ranging from data entry to editing to household tasks or child care.

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While searching for a full-time job, Ms. Aly spent two months completing tasks such as proofreading reports and essays and picking up groceries for her neighbours, earning about $900 in the process. She also rented out her basement, using a site called AirBnB, and turned to Ask for Task to hire people to clean up after her guests.

Ms. Aly is one of many people, dubbed "micro entrepreneurs," who have been able to acquire invaluable work experience and build career contacts through such online connections.

It's part of what is being called the collaborative or sharing economy, a fast-growing movement that seeks to save people time and money through co-operative efforts, such as car-sharing programs, babysitting collectives and communal agriculture. The movement is largely facilitated through online tools and websites.

"Collaboration is as old as humanity," said Natalie Foster, executive director of Peers, a San Francisco-based non-government organization aimed at building the sharing economy.

"What's new right now is people using technology in ways that we haven't seen before, in ways that bring people together and allow for new sorts of interactions that can transcend geography or enhance the [local] experience," she said.

The movement largely grew out of online collaboration tools, fuelled in part by a frustration with the traditional economy, Ms. Foster said. "We live in an era where the economy isn't working for most people, and people are looking for alternatives and are inspired by new models that are part of the sharing and peer economy," she said.

Young people, she added, are the driving force behind the movement, although many start out simply looking for a way to save money, or earn some cash.

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"Many people enter into the sharing economy for financial reasons, but they end up staying for the human connection," Ms. Foster said. "We're coming out of an era where much was written about how we're more alone as a society, how the social fabric is weaker, how we don't know our neighbours, and all of that is changing. That's what the sharing and peer economy is growing out of – the need for people to feel connected to one another, to know their neighbours, and to be part of communities."

Muneeb Mushtaq, founder and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Ask for Task, said his company's website is filled with stories about people finding work experiences and making new connections with others.

"Once you [take on] a task, you meet a new 'asker,' it's all about increasing your network," he explained. "[With such websites], now it's really easy to get to know each other, because it's a community of neighbours helping neighbours."

Ask for Task exemplifies the collaborative economy's growing reach. Only four months after going national, the site had more than 40,000 users across Canada, and registered nearly $1.25-million worth of transactions.

Mr. Mushtaq said his site helps "taskers" think of themselves as entrepreneurs running their own personal brand. Askers are encouraged to leave feedback and comments about each of the taskers, which helps build their profile on the website, and serves as a sort of "living résumé," he said.

"I think Ask for Task and all of these collaborative consumption ideas are disrupting the economy in a very positive way," Mr. Mushtaq said.

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"When I was in university five years back, there was nothing like this … The only options were working on campus or doing odd jobs at McDonald's or something like that," he added. "Bringing out that entrepreneurial spirit is very essential in these times, because platforms such as Ask for Task and AirBnB and others help you make the most of your time and make the most of your resources."

Participants can obtain work experience while still getting an education, or while searching for a full-time position.

Ms. Aly, who landed a job as an office administrator for a rehabilitation centre in Mississauga, said her Ask for Task experiences boosted her confidence about earning a living.

And if something were to go awry, she knows she can turn to the site again. "If I lose my job because of downsizing or something, there is always a backup plan for me."

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