Modernizing the “Wealth Work” Economy

A global pandemic laid bare the problems in the nation’s fastest-growing job sectors. It’s time for change.

Household and personal service work that in many cases caters to the ultra-wealthy has been steadily rising in recent years. In fact, it’s one of the fastest growing industries in the country. According to the US Department of Labor, between 2008 and 2018, the job growth for services to wealthy households vastly outpaced the nation’s overall job growth of about 7 percent.

The trend, which MIT economics professor David Autor has dubbed “wealth work,” includes an explosion in jobs like massage therapists (105 percent), animal caretakers (58 percent), personal financial advisors (37 percent), and fitness trainers (35 percent), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by the Brookings Institution.

The rise of the gig economy—freelance contractors, rideshare drivers—and the trend in wealth work coincided with the longest US economic expansion on record. That growth streak yielded a wealth gap in which the richest American households took the lion’s share of wealth, with only two percent of wealth going to the bottom half of the population. The workers who service that wealthy population have been largely self- or uninsured, paid disproportionately low rates, and clustered in urban labor markets. Most notoriously in recent years, the gig worker business model falls outside the parameters of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates minimum wage and overtime.

“The household professional service work of today has largely sprung from the knowledge economy,” says Nines CEO and co-founder Jacco de Bruijn.

“The explosion of wealth that’s come from these industries in recent years has created high demand for personal household jobs to serve that new wealth. And although we see these high-level aggregate employment numbers, there’s not a lot of data about how service professionals are compensated and protected. Because they’re working in a private industry, in homes. And that’s something we want to change.”

As precipitously as those jobs rose over the last decade, they evaporated with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, he says. “As Covid-19 set in, some households moved from urban to suburban areas and left their service professionals behind. Some just let them go altogether because they didn’t want the health risk of employing people in their home who didn’t live there full-time. Because compliance was so low and many people weren’t paid on the books, these service professionals couldn’t get unemployment and it’s going to be a while before many of them can find a job again.”

In fact, the Nines story begins with just such a problem, de Bruijn notes. “My co-founder, Mohamed Elzomor, has been in the personal service industry for years as a well-known personal trainer to Fortune 500 CEOs, celebrities, and royal families. But as soon as the pandemic hit, he was out of a job.” The pandemic triggered a job shakeout that shone a spotlight on an industry with fundamental problems, both for service professionals and for the people they service. “The direct challenges from Covid will go away,” de Bruijn says, “but the real problems remain. Service providers need job security and ongoing support, and households need help but don’t know how to do it in a safe and effective way. There’s an opportunity for us to be this support, and we think we’ll be an accelerator in the industry.”

Let's think about the problems in the industry and how we can solve them.

Nines recognized a way to pioneer a new model of household staffing that addressed both problems. As a former consultant who worked for years in technology startups, de Bruijn looked to the tech industry for inspiration. “A lot of private staffing agencies pride themselves on being over a century old and used to help place butlers in castles, but times have changed. In start-ups, people are really open to change and go back to first principles, and we said, ‘Let’s think about the problems in the industry and how we can solve them.’”

What came out of those conversations was the idea of giving both stakeholders—households and service professionals—ongoing, continuous support via a subscription type of membership—a model that the tech industry popularized over the last decade. “Since the beginning of this century, a lot of companies in the software industry migrated from a single transaction license model to a subscription in which the incentives are aligned. The only way they’d make money is by keeping their customers happy. It may seem counterintuitive that a model from the software industry would apply to a business that is all about people. But the bottom line is that we’re a support that’s always there.” 

 “The domestic service industry has always been based on a single transaction,” de Bruijn says. “The staffing agency finds you a person and then everyone goes their own way and tries to figure it out. That has failed miserably. Service providers need the proper onboarding and guidance, and households are not set up to be a successful household employer. So we’re looking to a relational approach: finding a person and placing a person is not the only step—it’s the first step.”

"We can truly say we’re a people business, on every side. Without a doubt we can say we are leading the way by investing in people..."

Nines is synthesizing the subscription business model with the deeply service-oriented philosophy of the hospitality industry. “When we first began researching this industry, we turned to the hotel and resort companies we admire, and the professionals they employ,” he says. “Ritz Carlton is one of our biggest inspirations. They invest in their employees, empower them to make decisions, and their employees have the freedom to accomplish their job of providing the finest service to guests. We turned to our friends in hospitality companies like The Peninsula Hotels and NoMad Hotels, and the message was clear. If you want to retain your employees, you have to support them and provide constant feedback.” 

While tech may have inspired the business model, people inspire and drive the business. “Our offering is placing people in other people’s homes,” de Bruijn says. “By the time we’ve placed someone in a home, we’ve laid the groundwork to make them successful: we’ve exhaustively figured out our members’ preferences, our Chief of Staff has (safely) been in the home and shadowed the service professional, and we’ve given our people what they need to do this job in which they’re an expert. But our job doesn’t stop there. We can truly say we’re a people business, on every side. Without a doubt we can say we are leading the way by investing in people, and we’re interested in seeing how this people-first mentality and relational approach can work in other offerings for our members.” 

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