The gig economy is making waves in education

Thanks largely to the rise in virtual schools, the sector is a Top 5 industry for freelance work

According to a recent FlexJobs report, over one-third of the American workers freelance — and education is one of the top-five industries with high demand for freelance laborers.

"Contract jobs in the education field seem to be keeping pace with the overall growth in flexible work we've seen in recent years," said Brie Reynolds, director of online content at FlexJobs. "Education and training is consistently among the top career fields for the number of flexible jobs posted each month, and has been since we started tracking these trends about five years ago. In looking at the number of freelance education/training jobs posted to FlexJobs in 2014 vs. 2015, we saw a 28% increase year over year."

Reynolds said primary reasons for the high demand are the high levels of specialization for many educators and "the rise in virtual education."

Positions like virtual teacher, program educator, curriculum writer/developer and tutor are increasingly popular in the K-12 space, as are "program manager/coordinator positions for organizations like museums and summer camps," Reynolds said.

Reynolds added, "Because so many teachers and faculty are being hired for virtual positions, online education is creating a way for students to access quality education in ways that fit their needs and lives. Whether they're unable to perform well in a traditional educational setting or they need extra tutoring or assistance in a particular subject, the growing availability of freelance educators means better access to education at every level, from kindergarten through higher education."

"For schools and organizations that run such [virtual education] programs, hiring freelance talent can help them find people with excellent qualifications who might otherwise not be able to commit to a full-time or in-person position, but who are more than able to work part-time as a freelancer and often times from home," she said.

Individualized learning

For Heidi DeMaio, a virtual teacher who is based in the U.S. but teaches English to students in Beijing, it is exactly this flexibility to work from home that attracted her to virtual teaching. DeMaio taught grades K-2 in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting in the states for over six years before leaving the classroom to be a stay-at-home parent. She said she most appreciates the fact that virtual teaching — especially with such drastic differences in time zones — allows her to focus more on the needs of her family.

"The time difference allows me to teach while my own children (ages 4-14) are still sleeping in the morning. I can again log in and teach after they are all in bed," she said. "On occasion, when I travel, I have been able to take my laptop, board and supplies with me in a small carry-on and taught remotely via a wireless connection."

In addition to the flexibility, DeMaio said she enjoys being able to offer more one-on-one support to her students. "The large classroom size, along with the behavioral management that is a part of the traditional classroom, are almost non-existent in an online classroom," she said. "These kids are as much 'my students' as any student I would have in a traditional classroom" with the added bonus of getting "a real taste of living and learning going hand-in-hand."

Not only that, she said, the pay is significantly better than what she would receive "at a traditional part-time job, and I don't have to do more than a few minutes of preparation prior to teaching a class." For about 7.5 hours of teaching per week, DeMaio said she will make around $15,000 in base pay and bonuses for the year.

For DeMaio, there's one additional benefit to teaching English to native Mandarin speakers: "My youngest son is adopted from China, and this has been a beautiful opportunity for me to marry the skills I have as an educator with my desire to connect our family with his first culture," she said.

Not just a K-12 phenomenon

When most people think of freelance employees in higher education, they automatically think of adjunct professors. According to the American Association of University Professors, 73% of the American professoriate is contingent faculty, meaning those not on the tenure track, and 59% are not employed by institutions full-time.

But according to AAUP senior program officer Gwendolyn Bradley, adjuncts are more part-time employees than traditional freelancers. Still, many adjunct professors work as freelancers, scraping together jobs at multiple institutions, working very long hours and facing chronic financial insecurity "because of low pay and uncertainty about how many classes they will be able to get the next semester, and have no provisions for retirement," said Bradley.

Many professors, adjunct and otherwise, have begun seeking outside sources of income as ways to supplement base salaries. These outside tasks have included everything from serving as Ph.D. or grant reviewers to freelance writing for mainstream outlets.

Nyasha Junior, an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Temple University, said she turned to freelance writing because she wanted an opportunity "to do something that was more accessible, so with writing more scholarly academic things, I wanted to also write for more general audiences" and help promote herself as a national thought leader.

Freelance writing is not something that necessarily comes naturally for many academics, Junior said.

"Academics in some ways are used to writing for free. Most of the time when we're writing books, they're not going to be books that are best-sellers, so you're probably not even going to be making royalties," she said. "For a lot of academics, we do a lot of things that are supposed to be covered under our salary [and are] supposed to be under the umbrella of what we do as academics," like writing and publishing. "You're used to not being paid for your work, having to ask about invoicing."

It is also not without potential for departmental backlash.

“Whatever you’re doing, you need to have a very good read on your department, in particular,” she said. “Figure out what their particular culture is. In some instances, [freelance writing] would be a positive, although still not helping you towards tenure and promotion. In some places, it would be considered service … and in other places, it would be frowned upon and not really a good idea.”

But for academics who turn to gigs like tutoring to supplement their income, the potential payout can be very lucrative.

Citing a $10 billion national and $100 billion global demand for everything from college essay writing, to GRE prep, to tutoring in specific math and science concepts, former college math professor Keith Rezendes said, “I was making three times what I was making as a college professor” by tutoring.

“If I worked out of New York, I was getting $350 an hour. When I worked here in Arizona, I was making $75 an hour,” he said.

Rezendes subsequently founded the MindSpree tutoring company hoping to further tap into that market.

“The pay is so great and the work and the reward is something you won’t get [in the traditional college classroom setting],” he said. “As a college professor, I had a room full of students and not everyone wants to be there, [but in the one-on-one environment] it’s just you and the student, there’s no excuses, there’s no administrative overhead” to cloud instruction, he said.

“As a college professor, it sounds great on paper, but the reality is I’d rather have [the flexibility] and I’m not tied down to any specific location,” he added.

Impact on the workforce

As the bootcamp and stackable credential industries take off, Rezendes believes there is also a growing market for on-demand tutoring to enhance the skillsets of those already in the workforce.

“It’s going to be very important,” he said, calling on-demand training “another way to disrupt the industry.”

“Why go back to school for four years of college, when maybe a year of tutoring while you’re already working entry-level” will give you the competencies to apply for a higher-level job, he asked.

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Filed Under: Higher Ed K12 Online Learning
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