Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why I Freelance

This post is as much for the ELT people as for the Taiwan folks (I'm betting the Taiwan readers, especially the other English teachers, will not need a lengthy blog post about this topic - they'll know immediately where I'm coming from).

I've been asked a few times why I freelance, when ostensibly I am a supporter of labor - not just that, but organized labor, labor that treats its own capital (that is, the work it can provide) the way corporations treat theirs - in an organized way to get the best benefit from it. I strongly support professional development and paid training, paid leave, parental leave benefits, and retirement benefits/pensions for workers as a part of a basic salary package. I also support national health insurance, but don't think that needs to be tied to employment. I am exactly the sort of person who wants the benefits working for an organization - being a formal employee - would bring. I'm the sort who would join a union and be active in it.

While I enjoy the benefits of freelancing - control over my schedule, no real "boss" per se, the confidence that comes with knowing I can create an income on my own without having an organization offer me employee status - I don't automatically gravitate to a lifestyle of billable-hour income and no benefits. A fixed salary and paid leave sure sound nice, especially on an academic calendar.

So why, then, have I chosen not to be employed by anybody? Why don't I pick a full-time job and stick with it? I've said several times on this blog that my two main employers are both pretty good - why not pick one and be their employee, rather than keeping both somewhat at arm's length?

And the reason is simple - my two employers (as in, not private students but organizations that give me group classes) are good, by industry standards. The industry as a whole, however, is not. I won't even qualify that with an "in Taiwan" because it's more of a global problem.

No job exists in Taiwan that is tempting enough for me to want to work it full-time. No job offers adequate pay along with the benefits I'd expect from a full-time employer. Why would I commit myself to one organization full-time when, honestly, here is a list of things I would not receive:

- Paid leave (although this is technically something we are legally entitled to, there is no realistic way to claim it and keep your job) if one is paid an hourly rate

- Additional job security including guaranteed hours

- Any sort of pension or retirement plan or benefit

- Better pay

- In many cases, a salary instead of hourly-rate work

- If salaried, a suitably high salary with reasonable hours. I'm not lazy, I work hard, but I want good money for that sort of commitment, and no amount of money will make me agree to work over 40 hours a week (and no salary I've seen on offer for English teachers adequately compensates 40 hours' worth of work)

- Paid professional development

So what is the benefit to becoming a full-time employee if it means committing myself, and getting nothing in return that I don't already give myself by freelancing?

What this boils down to is a problem of jobs not being good enough, which is an industry problem. I rather like both of my employers - they're the best I've found in the industry, to be frank. I have no complaint with them. They are generally staffed by good people. But, the story is the same: hourly pay, no paid vacation (which, again, is technically illegal in Taiwan but try getting them to give it to you and also keep your job, or good relations at your job), no guarantee of hours, no extra security or other benefits. Perhaps slight preference in hours offered, that's it. The salaried jobs that exist are for desk work, which I got into teaching partly to avoid. These are probably among the best jobs available in Taiwan, but what they offer still doesn't beat freelancing.

Pretty often, I hear "if people are taking the jobs, then that's all the employers need to offer" - okay, so what happens when experienced, qualified teachers stop taking the jobs, because they're unsatisfactory, and go it on their own? At that point, does it become clear that if you can't attract talent, the jobs on offer aren't good enough?

Yes, university work exists (one reason I'm planning to do a Master's program is to explore this option, potentially) but the salaries aren't high for what ends up being a very high workload and poorly-organized classes - e.g. "speaking and conversation" classes with 65 students, which of course is a non-starter. You tend not to get benefits you'd otherwise associate with them, such as good paid CPD or a research budget.

Public school work exists, but is not a great option for those of us who want to teach adults. The pay isn't that high in those jobs, either (it is much higher in international schools but that's not helpful if one wants to focus on adults). There are some salaried government teaching jobs, but salaries for them are subject to the whims of the Ministry of Education (which at one point revised salaries down when they needed to go up) and have their own drawbacks.

None of these options are better than freelancing, either.

And doesn't it say that something is wrong with the job market when taking work with a few people and building up private classes is a better option as an experienced, trained educator than taking a traditional job, however much you might want one?

In theory, this post is about teaching in Taiwan, but I feel like it could be about almost anywhere. In what country do (trained, professional) private language academy teachers earn very good wages (commensurate with their professional status), get paid CPD and job security - guaranteed pay or hours or other benefits? In what country are university ESL/EAP teachers not only well-paid but also have other professional opportunities and room for growth? Outside of Asia pay seems to be ridiculously low, and within Asia no country pays its truly professional English language educators well in the private sector. In universities, pay in Korea and Japan is better, but there doesn't seem to be much room for growth - you get the job you get and you may never be promoted the way a local teacher might.

Is anywhere better? Or am I going to be a freelancer forever?

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