Update 5/30: There has been consistent confusion around this story, so to clarify: This story is part of a theme week we did around Uber. We wanted to take a wide look at some of the notable and troubling aspects of Uber, which is becoming an influential company far beyond ridesharing itself. We told Uber we would be spending a week scrutinizing the company, and asked what stories the media was missing. One thing that Uber mentioned—that the company is relying on building a network of ex-military drivers to hopefully unlock rideshare access to US military bases—turned out to be a newsworthy example of Uber's long game to change regulations in its favor. This is the only story from our 30 story package to come from that conversation, and we wanted to be upfront about it, in part because Uber promoting its strategy of using veterans as a vehicle to push for regulation changes is highly reflective of how the company thinks and operates. Instead, our original editor's note proved more confusing than anything, and for that we apologize. To be clear, Motherboard has no sponsorship relationship with Uber.
A pop-up changed her life.
In 2011, Kia Hamel, a US Navy veteran, was forced to move to Washington when her husband, then in the Navy, was transferred to the Pentagon. Before the move, Hamel had found work with a string of US government agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Defense, figuring the skills she picked up as an operations specialist aboard the USS Nimitz in the 1990s would serve her well continuing to work for Uncle Sam.
Then the sequester happened.
"All of the jobs pretty much that I had applied for, they closed and never reopened," Hamel told Motherboard. "Or it would take a year to even get an interview. Basically, the government jobs just never panned out."
Hamel, a mother in addition to being a military veteran and military spouse, was faced with a dilemma: She needed to work to help pay the bills, but federal budget cuts slammed the door shut on her job prospects. "Even with my military experience, my military spouse preference [given to spouses of military members to increase their chances of employment with the federal government], and my bachelor's degree, it still was very, very difficult to get a job in this area," she said, coming to the conclusion that her best chance of making good money wasn't by finding any old job, but by going her own way and becoming her own boss.
"I was talking to my husband, really, about starting a bus company," she said while laughing, as if the idea of starting her own transportation business seemed strange. (I assured her it wasn't.) "So one day I was on the computer, just browsing, putting out 20 applications and resumes, and then I got a third-party pop-up from one of these agencies and Uber was mentioned. [She had not previously heard of Uber.] And so I clicked on it and went to Uber's website, and saw their video, and read about the things that would be required of me and said to myself, 'Oh, that's seems really interesting.'"
So interesting, in fact, that about two weeks later she was on the road driving for the ridesharing company, spending her time earning money instead of fruitlessly filling out application after application and waiting for would-be employers to call her back.
Getting a job can be challenging in the best of circumstances, but for military veterans and their spouses it can be even harder, not least of which because their accrued skills may not directly transfer to the private sector.
Uber, the $62 billion poster boy for the sharing economy, where people share access to everything from cars (Uber) to apartments (Airbnb) in exchange for dinero, changed that for at least 56,000 veterans.
That's how many military service members have signed up to become drivers after Uber launched its outreach effort UberMilitary in September 2014. Uber says its drivers who are veterans have earned $155 million in revenue to date, and its goal is to hit $500 million by 2020. Uber cautioned against extrapolating an hourly wage from these figures since drivers can drive for as many or as few hours as they want, but being generous with the back-of-the-envelope math (and assuming that not a single new driver is added to the platform beyond the current 56,000) that works out to just under $9,000 per driver in 2020 if Uber hits its $500 million goal.
"Time and again, our service men and women have committed to serving our country," CEO Travis Kalanick and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (who chairs the UberMilitary advisory board) wrote in Politico, arguing that military veterans merely needed an opportunity to thrive in the private sector.
It's a win-win for Uber and veterans. The veterans get a job that pays good money and rewards hard work. The company, which is constantly trying to increase the number of cars on the street, gets a reliable pipeline for recruiting.
Oh, and if Uber can leverage its good relationship with veterans, it could get access to a sweet new cash flow: serving service members on base.
As it stands, the Department of Defense doesn't allow ridesharing services like Uber or Lyft to pick up or drop off passengers on military bases. That's not good if you're a company like Uber whose primary instinct is to grow, grow, grow.
To hear Uber tell it, however, getting access to military bases isn't a matter of dollars and cents (although that's certainly part of it), but a matter of safety.
"By expanding access to reliable rides at the push of a button, we hope to see a reduction in alcohol-related incidents in military communities," Todd Bowers, the director of UberMilitary, recently said on Capitol Hill, telling Motherboard just a few days afterward that being allowed on military bases would have a "huge impact" on military families.
"Something that I saw throughout my military career was that there was one degree of separation from someone who had been impacted by drinking and driving on and off the military base," Bowers, a former Marine reservist, told Motherboard. "The reason for that is that transportation options are often very limited on these posts, so what happens is that folks end up having a few too many beers and they end up driving home and something tragic occurs."
Bowers, who fought in Iraq as part of the military response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, noted that Uber has had early conversations with the Department of Defense about getting military access but cautioned that no deals have yet been struck.
"We've gotten some really positive feedback from folks," he said, "but as you know working with an institution like the Department of Defense—we want to make sure we get the strategic guidance from them on how they would like to see this implemented."
Of course, for all of Uber's talk of flexibility, empowerment, and entrepreneurship are the ripostes put forward by critics of the so-called gig economy: People may be free to set their own schedule or be their own boss, but is that truly preferable to full-time employment? Or maybe that's not the right way to think about it, given that the unemployment rate for veterans can be higher than their civilian counterparts?
UberMilitary should not be thought of as a turnkey solution to every veteran's problems, Kathy Roth-Douquet, the president and CEO of Blue Star Families, but it does present a viable path forward for the men and women who risked their lives to protect their country. "There's a lot of dignity in it," she said.
"Driving for Uber is not the dream job for most people,but it can be a tool in the toolbox that you can control on your time that can give you opportunities."
For Kia Hamel, the Navy veteran and spouse, Uber isn't some soulless Delaware corporation looking to enrich its investors off the backs of its drivers, but rather a welcome option for a group of people whose problems may be overlooked by the wider American public.
"There are some issues that are not political at all and are just human issues," she said. "To be employed and to feel like you're doing a service for people—everyone should have that right, regardless of gender, ethnicity, whatever it might be."
"Uber gives you a chance," she said, "and it's something that they don't get enough credit for."
Uber Earth is Motherboard's exploration of the ways Uber has already changed the world and how it stands to do so in the future. Follow along here.