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Recruitment & Retention Opinion

The New Normal? Balancing the Needs of Schools and the Gig Economy

By Emily Douglas-McNab — August 04, 2017 3 min read
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During the American Association of School Personnel Administrators (AASPA) Human Capital Summit last December, I had the opportunity to speak with superintendents, chief HR officers, and assistant superintendents from more than 10 districts, representing a diverse group of states, about their challenges with recruiting and retaining talent. All these leaders indicated that they still had open classrooms, because they could not find enough qualified teacher candidates to fill a variety of roles--not just science, math, special education, and foreign language, which have been some of the most difficult positions to staff in schools.

When I asked if any of the districts had considered flexible work arrangements--in which an individual may only teach one or two classes--an assistant superintendent from Virginia shared a surprising story. His district had been contacted by a man with a master’s degree in mathematics and a teaching license, who was interested in teaching high school algebra... only. The man drove for Uber and Lyft, and he was making more than $100,000 a year, but he was willing to give up driving a few hours a day to have the opportunity to make a difference.

This was the first time I had heard about a district considering a “gig economy” teacher. The assistant superintendent explained that the district had a serious discussion about the opportunity, with mixed feelings from leaders in central office. Some people felt strongly about only hiring dedicated, full-time teachers. Others were even angry, scared, and confused. But overwhelmingly, the leadership was open to the idea, especially since the district’s high school algebra teacher at that time was a long-term sub. They felt that trying something that was uncomfortable for the staff was what was ultimately best for the students. The assistant superintendent said that the teacher was still employed with the district, teaching one class, and doing a great job.

The gig economy has impacted, and in some cases transformed, how organizations in almost every industry manage their human capital. But my experience at the AASPA Human Capital Summit made me wonder how many school district leaders were considering these type of flexible work arrangements as a possible antidote for talent shortages?

The Bureau of Labor Statics (BLS) notes that “there is no official definition of the ‘gig economy’--or, for that matter, a gig... a gig describes a single project or task for which a worker is hired, often through a digital marketplace, to work on demand. Some gigs are a type of short-term job, and some workers pursue gigs as a self-employment option; those concepts aren’t new.” Other names being currently used globally to refer to the gig economy include alternative work arrangements, platform economy, agile economy, in-demand or on-demand economy, independent workforce, 1099 workers, freelance nation, zero-hour contracting, and more. Many people associated gig workers with freelancers, Uber/Lyft drivers, consultants, etc.

So how many people in the United States are part of the gig economy? A recent report from Intuit, the owner of TurboTax, estimates that 34 percent of the American workforce is part of the gig economy. And they expect that number to grow to 43 percent by 2020!

The McKinsey Global Institute splits gig economy workers into four groups:


  1. Free agents, who actively choose independent work and derive their primary income from it;
  2. Casual earners, who use independent work for supplemental income and do so by choice;
  3. Reluctants, who make their primary living from independent work but would prefer traditional jobs; and the
  4. Financially strapped, who do supplemental independent work out of necessity.

As the BLS explains, there are pros and cons of gig work. The added flexibility, variety, and ability to pursue other interests outside of work could be seen by some as a plus. However, these job arrangements could come with inconsistency and a lack of benefits (e.g., health, retirement, life, disability, etc.).

Research shows us that having a highly trained, effective, and engaged teacher is what is best for students and learning. Yet, at a time of significant talent shortages in many school systems across the country, as well as an environment in which fewer high school and college students are interested in becoming an educator, should more school districts consider flexible staffing arrangements? Has your organization hired gig employees meet staffing needs? Share your feedback with me via email or on Twitter at @EmilyDouglasHC.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Talent Manager are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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