Low Pay Has Teachers Flocking to the Sharing Economy

One in 10 Airbnb hosts in the U.S. is a teacher, a new report shows.

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

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 percent of adults in the country work as full-time K–12 teachers.

Many of these 45,000-plus educators in the U.S. 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.

[A coupon from Target is indicative of the state of teaching today]

This data echoes similar trends across the so-called sharing economy. While comparable statistics for other companies aren’t available, ample anecdotal evidence suggests 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 U.S. 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.”

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 statistic that 94 percent 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. Uber has even held initiatives in some cities aimed at supporting teachers: In Portland, for instance, it had a promotion in 2016 for teacher drivers in which the company returned 3 percent of a rider’s fare back to the classroom of that driver (a.k.a., in the company’s parlance, the “UberEDUCATOR”).

Both companies stress that this trend consists not only of a financial pick-me-up for cash-strapped teachers, but also of a symbiotic relationship of sorts. “Right now, the nation is having a conversation about how … teachers in this country are not given the respect and dignity they deserve,” said Christopher Nulty, an Airbnb spokesman. “We certainly don’t think homesharing is a solution [for all those problems] but we do believe it’s an important tool for teachers” to help cope with them, “and frankly we’re really proud of the fact that 10 percent of the [Airbnb hosting] community is teachers.”

[There are larger concerns behind the teachers’ strikes]

That pride, suggests Arun Sundararajan, a professor at the NYU Stern School of Business, stems in part from the fact that the company has faced intense scrutiny from critics who claim that it enables landlords to take housing off the rental market and basically convert buildings and apartments into hotels, and that it intensifies gentrification. In many cities, proposed regulations threaten to crack down on this phenomenon by significantly limiting the company’s operations or banning it altogether; New York City, for example, recently passed a measure that significantly hamstrings Airbnb’s operations in the city.

Companies like Airbnb and Uber are trying to “promote the narrative that [hosts and drivers] are truly everyday people” who are “casually” participating in the platforms on the side, Sundararajan says. “Highlighting the number of workers who are teachers can be a particularly effective way of advancing that narrative.” It helps humanize the companies. It emphasizes the message that these are safe alternatives to regular cabs and hotels—as Sundararajan puts it, “If society trusts this person with our children, then I feel more comfortable sleeping in their bedroom.”

Nulty, the Airbnb spokesman, expresses these very sentiments in explaining why the company is proud that so many of its hosts are teachers. “It’s hard to imagine a group of people who are more welcoming, more thoughtful, and who enjoy sharing about their community and about their world more than teachers,” he says. “In a moment when there are conversations about building walls, putting up barriers, we really see the ability of people to stay in someone else’s home and have an experience and a connection with another person as a powerful and transformative moment and experience. In classrooms across the country every day, teachers are making those sort of moments and experiences happen in a really compelling and tangible way.”

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.