Is it the Uberification of education, a Yukon economic development opportunity or a cool opportunity to make a few bucks helping a keen Chinese youngster learn English?
VIPKID is all three. The Beijing-based company offers US$14-22 per hour for Americans and Canadians with bachelor degrees and some teaching experience to teach English to Chinese children aged 4-12 years via one-on-one video conferences. Once interviewed and hired by VIPKID, teachers are connected by the website to prospective students in China. The video conference lessons take place on VIPKID’s platform, which includes Skype-style video boxes showing the faces of the participants as well as the VIPKID web content to be taught.
From the point of view of Yukon economic development, platforms like this are interesting. It is in effect an export business, but the product is intangible and nearly 100 per cent value-added. This is helpful, since Yukon exporters of physical goods have traditionally struggled because of long and costly supply chains.
VIPKID is not a unique model. Yukoners can offer other services online via so-called “gig economy” platforms such as Upwork. But VIPKID is one of the leaders in expanding the model to education.
As with Uber, this kind of internet business model can provoke strong reactions both for and against. On the plus side, you can generate some extra income in a way that leaves you more control of your schedule than a traditional job. You also can do it anywhere you want (assuming you have internet coverage).
On the other hand, your job security is minimal, there’s no pension, and the platform’s algorithms are relentlessly watching for tardiness, low user feedback or other deviations from the program. You are also paid piecework. If for some reason not a lot of Chinese pre-teens like your profile, you may not get enough sessions to make it worthwhile. As “taskers” on Taskrabbit know, the platform reserves the right to change important details like pay rates and how you are matched with clients at any time.
Despite the qualms, VIPKID seems to be gaining traction. According to Bloomberg, in December 2016 the company had 5,000 teachers working with 50,000 children and hoped to quadruple its students within a year. Indeed.ca, a jobs website, has 64 reviews from Canadians who on average rate VIPKID with 4 out of 5 stars.
The Financial Times reports that VIPKID just raised US$200 million from venture capitalists, including some brand-name investors such as Silicon Valley’s storied Sequoia Capital.
According to Crunchbase, that’s on top of the US$125 million previously raised in five earlier investment rounds. Investors are reported to be valuing the company at over US$ 1.5 billion.
Not bad for a company founded by a 33-year-old Chinese high-school drop-out as recently as 2013. Cindi Mi, the drop-out in question, grew up in Heilongjiang province in northern China on the border with Siberia. After working with her uncle’s traditional in-person tutoring centre and helping open several more, she came up with the idea of using the internet to match Chinese students with North American teachers. Many Chinese parents put a premium on education and, these days, learning good English. Meanwhile, North American teachers can supplement their incomes with a flexible schedule similar to old-fashioned tutoring in person.
So what does all this mean for the Yukon?
VIPKID is unlikely to cause an exodus of teachers from our schools. The VIPKID payments are more interesting for teachers in jurisdictions that pay much less than the Yukon government. The Washington Post says the average teacher salary in South Dakota is below US$40,000 and the starting salary is under US$30,000. In comparison, this is barely half the starting salary for Yukon teachers when adjusted for the exchange rate.
But for current Yukon teachers or others with teaching experience who need some supplemental income, VIPKID is an option if you don’t mind getting up early to teach in convenient Beijing time slots.
VIPKID’s importance is that it signals that ever more jobs are migrating online. A Forbes article lists 79 different websites for freelancers. Some are very focused on specific jobs, like VIPKID or Creative Loft for photographers. Others like Guru or We Work Remotely have a dizzying array of services in demand.
This is not a miracle cure for the Yukon economy. But it creates more options for people to earn cash and stay in the Yukon, rather than succumbing to economic magnets Outside and moving away.
A report by Stefan Voswinkel a few years ago estimated there were already hundreds of remote knowledge workers in the Yukon. With all these job websites, there are probably more now.
You might even know one. You can tell if they are especially bitter when our internet goes down, and look a bit bleary-eyed from 6 a.m. video conferences with Beijing.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.