The majority of dance and drama colleges will nowadays be hiring freelancers. My own college, The MTA, was built on a business model of almost exclusively using freelancers – as it just made more sense. I didn’t need the same skill set every week of the term, so why would I put people on a salary and tie them into a contract with us? We have a handful of staff on the payroll (and by that I mean. . . 3), but everybody else is freelance.

It enables me to have a dynamic faculty of top industry professionals who come and go as their professional work allows (and before you start. . . we have lots of things in place to ensure that our students get consistency throughout the course. . . so don’t be worrying about that right now, and don’t be worrying about them not being good teachers either, if you look hard enough you can find top professionals that are brilliant teachers too) By having a faculty of professionals I can ensure that all lessons are current, and nobody within the staff group has become entrenched in academia. They all remember what it’s like to be doing it. They all know what the industry needs today. I have nobody on my faculty that feel a bitterness about the industry. They all love it and have chosen to ‘give back’ as their in-between job.

Most colleges will constantly be hiring guest creatives to come into work on their productions, many like us will be hiring both creative and technical help. 

Colleges, like our industry, are built on a foundation of freelancers.

Up until 2009 when I opened the college I too was on the freelance treadmill, attempting to cobble together job after job that would allow me to pay my bills and survive.  I am not from a monied background so I would often be living hand to mouth. Maybe it was me and my poor budgeting skills but with no savings to fall back on I really needed every invoice paid on time in order to keep afloat. I have such vivid memories of invoices not being paid on time and me having to juggle my commitments in order to ensure that I could cope until whoever paid me what they owed. 

I remember the stress of checking my account to see what I could afford to do, the annoyance of knowing that I had done a job but somebody else was sitting on my fee. The sense of shame when you sent that email asking them if they’d received your invoice (knowing full well that they had, but you just wanted to prompt them to pay), the feeling of begging when you had to keep writing emails because people had held onto your hard-earned money that bit too long. When you don’t have a backup, you remember those feelings.

So when I opened The MTA I made a promise to myself that nobody that worked for me would ever have to wait for their fee. I would always pay them on receipt of their invoice. It felt like such an obvious thing. The students would have paid their fees – that money was not mine, it belonged to the people that were working with the students, so why would I hold onto it? Some 14 years later and I still pay people on receipt of their invoice.

I believe that all colleges should do this. Now the argument will be that it’s OK for me, I’m a tiny college, those invoices won’t be flooding in, it’s easy to manage. . . yadda, yadda. Here’s the rub though – if the college is bigger they’ll have a finance department whose sole job is to manage invoices, pay people and balance the books. With online banking this process is relatively easy. It’s not undoable . . . it’s just that none of them have ever done it, but why wait for ‘payroll’? Be the change that this industry needs. We the employers need to put ourselves out to help the people that enable us to run our businesses. 

We don’t pay the best. We don’t offer our freelancers that much work every term, however, I have the most insanely loyal group of people working for me that have literally stuck with me through the good times and the tough, and I believe that I’ve secured that loyalty by understanding how the freelancer works because we’re all in the same industry.

As soon as colleges get taken over by corporations and academic institutions they’re lost, as those people have no concept of what it’s like to go from job to job, earning a bit here and a bit there. They come from a place of security. . . but our industry has never gifted us that privilege.