We're for Hire, Just Click

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Amid the mountains of baseball cards and cookie jars up for grabs on eBay's Net bazaar, one offer stood out this spring: "Team of 16 employees from major ISP willing to leave as a group," the posting read. "Total minimum bid would be $3,140,000." To even the most avid online collector, this seemed far-fetched--not to mention medieval--as if a package deal of techies could be bartered like a set of Limoges china or Star Wars lunch boxes. Surely it had to be a hoax.

Jeff Taylor knew what he was seeing was no joke. Since January, Taylor, the founder of Monster.com, the pioneering online job board, had been hatching his own plans for a Web service that would let job seekers put themselves on the block. And although the eBay geeks didn't sell themselves, the fact that they had given it a go was enough, in Taylor's mind, to "validate the process." So last month Monster rolled out its "talent market," where independent contractors and freelancers can trumpet their skills and put themselves up for auction to prospective employers.

To Taylor, the logic for a human auction is even more compelling than the one for things, and his is one of a number of e-companies that are changing the way employers buy labor. As with eBay, the talent market eliminates the middleman and levels the playing field between buyer and seller. But an antique cigar cutter never has to sell itself. People do. "Marketing themselves is the most difficult thing for free agents," says Taylor, who heads the interactive division of recruiting ad giant TMP Worldwide, which bought Monster in 1995. "This puts them in the driver's seat."

Sure, athletes are bought and sold all the time; but it sounds ridiculous to shop a UNIX programmer or architect. Yet the timing is perfect for such a bold experiment in the burgeoning field of e-cruiting. Not only is unemployment near record lows, but Silicon Valley is also facing a severe shortage of qualified techies. There are 500,000 vacancies, a number expected to grow to a few million. In such a tight labor market, the Net may be just the tool for the growing ranks of job-hopping free agents to flex their bargaining muscle.

One of the eBay human auctioneers, John Kinsella, recently started an online jobs venture, Bid4Geeks, where techie teams can gauge how much they're worth. Meanwhile, eLance, a Jersey City, N.J., startup founded by two Wall Streeters, will soon launch a different sort of auction, where firms will be able to post projects--white-collar tasks like Web design, consulting and marketing--and solicit bids on them. Another player, FreeAgent, is set to offer a similar service.

Since the talent market launched a month ago, some 35,000 customers, from programmers to Elvis impersonators, have filled out their profiles, eagerly awaiting an offer they can't refuse. Unlike traditional auctions, though, bids aren't binding--there is more to picking a new boss than simply finding the right salary. So once the auction period ends--anywhere from one to five days--an accepted bid sets the stage to close the deal. "It gives you a starting point," says David Braverman, of Woodmere, New York, who runs a marketing agency and, after a week on the site, is putting final touches on a project with a Web retailing startup.

Not everyone has been so lucky. In fact, individual sellers have vastly outnumbered talent buyers because many companies are wary of a newfangled system that could shift the balance of power. That initial disparity in supply and demand, though, doesn't worry Taylor, who says, "where the job seekers go, the employers will follow."

He should know. As millions of job hunters have flocked to destinations like Monster, Careerpath.com and Careerbuilder.com to post virtual resumes and glean advice, headhunters and corporate recruiters haven't been far behind, shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to pitch their positions. Since it's faster and significantly cheaper to hire online, in a few years e-cruiting could capture up to half the U.S. search-and-recruitment market, worth some $30 billion, according to Perry Boyle, an analyst at Thomas Weisel Partners. Monster alone, which will eventually take a cut of $250 to $1,000 from firms that make a talent-market hire (the site is currently free), draws close to 3 million visitors a month, according to Media Metrix, helping the site become one of the few profitable Net outfits. It has made a name for itself with biting TV spots, which feature kids rattling off deadpan lines like "I want to be forced into early retirement."

eLance has its own, radical plan for bringing employers and employees together. After watching how markets dynamically set prices for stocks, bonds and commodities, bond trader Beerud Sheth and portfolio manager Srini Anumolu figured they could transfer the same efficiency to the job market. With a global pool of talent available to bid on every project, a programmer in Moscow could win an assignment from a firm in Iowa.

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