CHAPEL HILL - Just two years out of college, 24-year-old Morris Gelblum is running a growing online company that helps other young people struggling in the Great Recession make ends meet.
Gelblum’s company, Sweeps, connects college students with odd jobs such as computer IT work, moving furniture, tutoring and proofreading papers. One frequent odd job for students of the digital age: Helping people learn to use their iPhones.
The company charges a flat rate of $25 an hour, and students are paid $14, plus tip. About 250 “Sweepers” from UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and four other universities worked in the Triangle in 2011, up from 75 Sweepers when it launched in 2010. This year, Sweeps will expand into Charlotte, Wilmington and the Triad area.
Gelblum wants to help young people make extra spending money, network and gain work skills that could lead to full-time jobs.
“I was graduating in 2010 amid a graduating class that was hit hard by the recession. It had created this need,” he said. “People are either unemployed or under-employed. It’s been three to four years now where it’s been tough for my generation.”Lean operation
Sweeps is a lean operation out of a one-room office at 133 1/2 E. Franklin St., in the Franklin Business Center. It consists of Gelblum and four interns and is hiring for IT support, programming and marketing positions.
The company keeps overhead low by operating mostly from its website, Sweeps.jobs, and using affordable software-as-a-service programs and tools, such as Yammer, an intra-office social media program.
Gelblum first built the basic structure of Sweeps when he was a student at Brogden High School in Raleigh with the help of his mother. When he enrolled at UNC-CH, he expanded it and earned an Excellence for Entrepreneurship Award at Kenan-Flagler Business School for the business model.
After graduating, Gelblum further expanded the vision. Now, he wants to eventually build Sweeps into a national website, to be “the best way to hire college students.”
“College students always have skills that the general population needs,” Gelblum said.
Gelblum declined to give revenue numbers, but said the company is profitable and has never had to raise or borrow money.
The advantage over a website like Craigslist, he said, is Sweeps’ ability to provide trustworthy workers with skills matched to the jobs. A screening process involves a paper application and a three-step interview process. In 2011, the company turned away about half of the applicants as it looked for one quality above all others: motivation.
Sweeper Benjamin Snow, 23, graduated from N.C. State in May with a degree in bio-engineering, studying wetland restoration and water quality. He said he made about $700 in the spring semester working through the company, doing mostly moving jobs – Snow wanted physical labor to balance out the school work.
He said he liked the flexibility and freedom of the Sweeps model. The company sends out notifications of job opportunities via email, Twitter and text messages. Sweepers respond to the messages to compete for the jobs, and win the jobs by their ranking in terms of past experience and feedback from customers.
“Each Sweeper is their own independent contractor. It gives you more freedom on when you want to work,” said Snow, who has a full-time job lined up for the fall. “Working a part-time job, you have to go through a boss and try to consult with your coworkers for your schedule and availability. It’s been nice not having to go through that route.”Tough job market
By the numbers, the job market for graduates this year still looks challenging. The national unemployment rate for people under 25 years old was 16.4 percent in April, double the overall national rate of 8.1 percent.
At the same time, graduates also have the weight of mounting college loan debts on their young shoulders.
A recent study by John Quinterno, founder of Chapel Hill-based research consultancy South by North Strategies Ltd., for Demos, a New York public policy organization, found that as state government support for higher education has declined during the past decade, tuition and fees at four-year public universities increased by 112.5 percent. Outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. has grown by a factor of 4.5 since 1999, from $119 billion in first quarter 1999 to $541 billion in first quarter 2011.
“Compared to prior generations of college students, young adults who have reached college age since 2000 have increasingly been left to their own devices,” Quinterno wrote.