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Low Pay Pushes US Teachers Toward Sharing Economy

Many teachers in recent years have gravitated toward companies like Uber, which has courted teachers as drivers after school and on the weekends
The average annual salary for K–12 public-school teachers is roughly $58,000, and they typically spend a sizable chunk  of that on classroom supplies integral to their jobsThe average annual salary for K–12 public-school teachers is roughly $58,000, and they typically spend a sizable chunk  of that on classroom supplies integral to their jobs

Airbnb, the popular platform that lets people rent out their homes and apartments, released the results of a volunteer survey this week containing the striking statistic that nearly one in 10 of its hosts in the United States is an educator.

In some states the trend appears to be even more pronounced—more than a quarter of all Airbnb hosts in Utah and Wisconsin, for example, work as teachers or in education (the company includes in that category administrators and college professors). This is especially noteworthy given that an analysis of census and National Center for Education Statistics figures suggests that just less than 2% of adults in the country work as full-time K–12 teachers, The Atlantic reported.

Many of these 45,000-plus educators in the US are presumably using Airbnb to supplement their regular income, as teachers struggle with stagnant, if not declining, pay. The average annual salary for K–12 public-school teachers is roughly $58,000, and they typically spend a sizable chunk of that on classroom supplies integral to their jobs. Teachers’ frustration with the situation has become so acute that it drove educators en masse to the picket lines in certain parts of the country this past spring.

The typical teacher host earned $6,500 through Airbnb last year—hardly a negligible boost for financially strapped educators. And for many teachers, that boost is far more appealing than other means of supplementing their incomes. For one, the personality traits found in the quintessential teacher—socially adept and empathetic, responsive and adaptable, a passion for sharing knowledge—are also typical of good hosts.

For another, teachers’ schedules mean they often have more flexibility in the summer. Some economists who study the teaching force, like the University of Missouri’s Michael Podgursky, argue that this flexibility, and not a need for supplemental income, is the key driver behind the trend.

Still, according to the report, teachers last year earned roughly one-third of their total annual earnings from Airbnb through hosting during the summer months alone, suggesting that while they do host at a slightly higher rate during their “off season”, they’re still using the platform a fair amount during the school year.

Seeking Second Job

This data echoes similar trends across the so-called sharing economy. While comparable statistics for other companies aren’t available, ample anecdotal evidence suggest that many teachers in recent years have gravitated toward companies like Uber, which has courted teachers as drivers after school and on the weekends.

And as Vox has reported, citing bureau of labor statistics data, close to one in five public-school teachers in 2016 held a second job during the school year; teachers were about five times more likely than the average full-time worker in the US to have a part-time job.

The pay gap between teachers and other college-educated workers is bigger than ever, according to a 2016 report by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “This is a crisis,” says Sylvia Allegretto, one of the report’s co-authors. Allegretto is referring to low pay, limited benefits, and a lack of funding for supplies and crumbling classrooms—all of which played into walkouts in states like West Virginia and Oklahoma, which are traditionally averse to union activity.

And the fact that striking teachers managed to garner so much community support, Allegretto argues, is “very telling” given that a growing share of Americans feel that teachers’ unions have a negative influence on public schools.

“I think we’re starting to turn the corner now,” in part thanks to the strikes, she added, “and people are realizing that teachers are one of the most valuable, critical professions in the country.”

Alarming Statistics

That Airbnb and Uber are leveraging those sentiments to advance their business goals is a testament to this evolving mentality. Both companies spotlight the crisis Allegretto describes in touting their pull on educators.

In the introduction of its report, for example, Airbnb highlights the alarming statistics that 94% of public-school teachers pay for school supplies with their own money, and that, on average, teachers earned less last year than they did in 1990 when adjusted for inflation. In that sense, the company suggests that its platform is helping invaluable members of society cope with the aftermath of the Great Recession.  

Uber has frequently disseminated a similar message: “Every day teachers are asked to do more with less, constantly faced with new challenges and limited resources. Uber opens the door for more possibilities and delivers a meaningful impact to the communities we serve,” the company wrote in a 2014 blog post.

Chances are that, on top of the supplemental income, many of those educators find joy in meeting and learning from new people, in sharing and welcoming others into their homes. And Airbnb and Uber love letting the public know that their ranks are brimming with teachers. But this relationship, even if mutually beneficial, only exists because for so many teachers, their primary career isn’t enough to sustain them.

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