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Beware the Tutor Mill

Before we discuss the inherent flaws of tutor mills, it's important to define our terms. A tutor mill is a company that employs hundreds of tutors and facilitates clients finding their tutors by categorizing them by location, subject, price per hour, qualifications, etc. Once a client finds a tutor to his/her liking, they must go through the tutor mill in order to establish contact with the tutor. The tutor company must have knowledge of all contacts between client and tutor because the company collects a percentage of each tutor's payment. This commission is usually quite reasonable, since the tutor mill aggressively advertises their tutors and holds very high position on most search engines. If a tutor wanted to be very visible without using a tutor mill, (thus retaining 100% of his or her fee), they would have to spend a lot of time and money to achieve their goal. Internet advertising is a job unto itself and promoting yourself quickly and efficiently on multiple search engines is no easy task. I've been an internet advertiser for six years, and have handled businesses in diverse industries ranging from single location, two-employee start-ups, to nationwide chains with hundreds of employees.

On the surface, the concept of a new tutor joining a company to promote his or her name, getting a couple of leads, and paying a nominal commission, sounds like a win/win proposition. It's especially convenient when the tutor doesn't have the time or proclivity to advertise for themselves. In fact, if a new tutor wants clients and doesn't have the time, knowledge or motivation to inject their name into the hundreds of free advertising sources that are available through the internet, then they really have no choice but to join a tutor mill.

My frustration lies more with tutor mills than with the tutors that use them. The tutors are trying to find jobs in order to survive, whereas the tutor mills are just trying to cash in on their tutor's desperation. Think about it. In a soft economy, you can build a mill for almost any conventionally freelance occupation. Currently, there are architect mills, computer programmer mills, babysitting mills, etc. With the emergence of internet advertising, the old "temp agencies" have morphed into thousands of unique industry mills.

I began to question the engines of these tutor mills. In other words, how these businesses were able to run (their expenditures, revenues, etc.) There were no upfront costs or monthly fees required from the tutors in order for them to join the company, which to me, sounds a little puzzling. Granted, the tutors were giving a percentage of their client's fee to the company, but that was predicated on clients employing these tutors by way of finding them through these tutor mills. Considering that there are a plethora of these companies, each employing hundreds of tutors, the gap between potential income and realized income becomes very large. There were no contracts defining the term of the tutor/tutor mill relationship so, once the tutor secured enough leads, he or she could just part ways with the company and avoid paying further commissions. Another option would be for the tutor to work with the company and simultaneously work independently. This is how the word "mill" became associated with these type of companies. The tutors are constantly being rotated in and out. They are being churned like butter. They are the epitome of "fair weather" workers, using the tutor mills when times are tough, and leaving them high and dry when times improve.

Creating a business that helps provide jobs for their employees and facilitates clients finding trustworthy tutors is a fabulous concept. However, a business cannot succeed by spending more than it makes. It's hard for me to fathom a company that provides visibility for their tutors by entering them into their database, aggressively advertises them, takes care of all the back office, accounting and tax procedures, and only requires a paltry commission from a potential future job in exchange. But, since tutor mills do exist, I'll have to consider the remote possibility that I'm missing something. Maybe they collect some compensation from third party advertisers that use their website because of its high rank or position. Maybe that income tilts their financial scale to the break-even point or perhaps a position where they make a profit. That might be the case. However, their bread and butter has to be getting clients to use their tutors. That is the reason they exist and that should be their driving force.

Since the number of tutor mills has increased exponentially with the growing popularity and necessity of the internet, they are now forced to compete for their share of prospective clients. Naturally, each company has to create and promote something about themselves that will separate them from the rest of the crowd and lure in more clients. If you thought about it from a parent's perspective, the necessary and most important quality in a tutor, who will be in close proximity to your child, is that they are trustworthy. One way to convince parents that the tutors in your company are trustworthy, is by stating that all of your tutors have had background checks. "Background checks" is a very vague term. It can mean that the tutor gave his proper name and address when he filled out the application. They checked to see that this tutor does indeed live at his stated address, so therefore they completed a background check on this tutor. If a company specified that their background check was the above operation, it wouldn't exactly inspire confidence. But since they just say "background check" it leaves room for people to assume that they are checking the tutor's criminal record, educational qualifications, etc.

When I find that a business is misleading the general public by using ambiguous terms to sell their product, I feel an obligation to make these findings public. I looked into a bunch of tutor mills, and late each night, I applied to a few popular ones that made a point in saying that they do background checks on all of their tutors. I signed the "Agree to Pay a Commission" statements, filled out the applications, and submitted them. A couple of companies actually sent confirmation emails congratulating me for becoming the newest member of their tutor family, less than five minutes after my submission of their application. Then I looked myself up on their directory and, lo and behold, there I was, with a check marked box for "Background Check Verified". I don't know what kind of background check they performed in less than five minutes at 1 AM, but evidently I passed it. Other companies took a whole day to determine that I met their lofty standards and passed their detailed background checks, before welcoming me as a trusted member of their tutor society.

My firsthand experience is that most tutor mills do not check educational qualifications, and I have yet to find one that checks criminal history. This really shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, we already know how hard it is for these companies to make a profit. Is it that much of a stretch to doubt that they are willing to front another $35 per tutor for an official background check. Let's crunch the numbers. The average commission that a tutor mill charges their tutors is 15%. The average tutor charges $30 per hour for their services. So the tutor mill collects $4.50 per hour for the clients that they connect to their tutors. That means each tutor has to work 8 hours in order for the tutor mill just to recoup the money that they fronted for each background check. That is difficult to comprehend on multiple levels: The uncertainty of getting clients to use their tutors, the high turnover rate which adversely affects how long your tutors will stay with you before becoming independent, and the most plausible argument: Why front money for an official background check, when you can perform an unofficial check for free, call it a "background check", and stay within the limits of the law.

I admit that from a socioeconomic vantage, this is a rather brooding perspective of humanity. However, I am merely pointing out what I consider questionable posture of these companies and remembering the old adage, "If something doesn't make sense, then it's probably not true." Don't view my words as gospel. Check it out for yourselves, if you wish. Everything you do in life, boils down to choices. You can choose to believe whatever makes you feel comfortable, or you can challenge things that don't sound right to you. I tend to lean towards the latter, and unfortunately, I'm never at a loss for material.

--Editor, Tutor Pros

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Daniel Dayan of Tutor Pros

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