Now we know how many drivers Uber has — and have a better idea of what they’re making
These gross earnings don't account for the considerable costs drivers pay to deploy their own cars as modern-day taxis. But Uber argues that these numbers paint a picture of decent work in a shifting economy where tens of thousands of people — nearly half of them with college degrees — have recently found supplemental income and more flexibility doing a job that has long been the domain of immigrants and middle-aged men.
The analysis, drawn from internal figures as well as a survey of about 600 UberX and UberBlack drivers, offers the most extensive look at how fast the company has grown, who's driving for it and how this work supplements their other employment. Krueger, who previously served as chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, contracted with Uber to write the analysis, along with the company's head of policy research, Jonathan Hall.
The analysis shows that Uber's drivers in the United States collectively received $656.8 million in payments from the company in the last three months of 2014 (that translated in October to about $17.79 an hour in Washington, and $30.35 in New York). The taxi earnings in comparison — which reflect net income, not gross earnings — come from Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics. This new Uber data shows that the number of new drivers signing up with the company has doubled every six months for the last two years. And UberX, the company's economy-class service deploying everyday drivers, has come to dwarf Uber's original black town-car offering in little more than a year:
Others see in Uber something more sinister, a sign that people who can't find better jobs in a bad economy must settle instead for work as part-time "independent contractors" with a faraway tech company that offers them no benefits.
There has been a shortage of hard data to answer these questions — Are these good jobs? Would they even exist in a better economy? — as platforms such as Uber have proliferated over the past five years. Krueger argues that the numbers Uber is releasing now point to the first picture — Uber as the promising future of work — and not the second.
"When I looked through the survey, I was struck by how many of the drivers already had jobs when they started," says Krueger, who says he had full discretion over his research. "They joined Uber not out of desperation, but because it offered new opportunity that could help them smooth their income, smooth fluctuations from other jobs, and add a supplement to their household income. The more I looked into it, the more I thought this rapid growth is really not a result of a weak job market, but the result of a new opportunity."
The survey, gathered from drivers in 20 markets including Washington, found that 80 percent were working full- or part-time shortly before joining Uber. Just 8 percent said they were unemployed before driving for the service, suggesting that Uber hasn't been flooded by would-be workers who could find no other jobs. Nearly a quarter of the drivers said Uber was their sole source of income; 38 percent said they viewed it as a supplement to earnings but not a significant source of them. That may mean that Uber is helping to make up for weak wages in other sectors.
Krueger also points to the fact that Uber's growth has continued to accelerate as the U.S. economy has, too. In December, Uber says, its internal data captured 162,037 active drivers who gave at least four rides that month in all of its U.S. markets. That's the first time we're seeing how many drivers Uber has nationally.
And this is what new sign-ups have looked like:
That survey suggests that these people driving for Uber look notably different from your average cabbie: About 48 percent have a college degree (compared with 19 percent for taxi drivers and chauffeurs in the same 20 markets, using American Community Survey data). More of Uber's drivers are white than in the taxi profession, and their ranks include modestly more women:
The survey data also portrays a rosy picture of how content Uber drivers are, with 71 percent saying the survey had boosted their income and a slightly higher share saying that Uber had given them more control over their schedules.
These numbers, though, contrast with growing protests by Uber drivers who are upset that the company has cut into their pay while trying to make rides ever-cheaper for passengers — Uber's other set of customers. If the picture Uber is sharing today is a truly representative one, it still raises a difficult question for the company's future: Can Uber keep drivers happy — and keep their pay up — as the company grows, as it tries to satisfy investors, as it devises new ways to offer transportation so cheap Uber may one day compete with public transit?
David Plouffe, Uber's senior vice president of policy and strategy who worked with Krueger in the Obama White House, insists none of those goals are incompatible.
"As long as demand keeps growing — and we see no sign that it won’t — that means there are more riders, and that means drivers will be doing more trips per hour," Plouffe says. "The more efficient the driver is, the more money they’re going to make. That’s clear in all of our data."