In a step towards embracing the gig economy, craft chain Michaels has revamped its in-store classes turning instructors into freelancers responsible for designing, pricing, and marketing their own workshops. The new Community Classroom program, which rolled out to 1,258 Michaels stores nationwide in March, allows any creative person to pitch to teach at their local Michaels store.

While the program offers more freedom for teachers and the potential for greater earnings, longtime instructors are concerned that without opportunities for in-store demos, samples, and other events to market classes customers won’t know to enroll. They’re also disappointed to be losing the little job security the position provided.

Until February 2017 teachers at Michaels earned minimum wage plus 90% of each student enrollment. Then, Michaels cut teacher pay by 42% but kept teachers on as part-time employees meaning they were still entitled to the 30% in-store discount. Under the new Community Classroom program, instructors are freelancers earning 70% of the fees collected from each student, but the in-store discount has been reduced to 15%. A class can be held if only one student enrolls. The new initiative was piloted in five cities in December of last year under the name MAKERS Nation.

Elaine Gross has been teaching knitting at the Michaels on Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for three years. Although Gross enjoys introducing people to knitting, she says teaching at Michaels has never been a great experience.

According to Gross the store’s only effort to promote her classes was a twice-yearly open house where customers could sign up for half price tuition. At times her classroom space would be booked for parties forcing her to teach knitting in the hallway. When students registered but didn’t show up, the store would keep the tuition and but not pay her. “Fortunately, I live two blocks away,” she says. “But still.” Gross continued to teach at Michaels because it provided supplementary income to her day job and because she enjoyed the interaction with her students.

When she heard she was being let go and would need to submit a Community Classroom application in order to continue to teach, now as a freelancer, Gross had mixed feelings. Her biggest concern was marketing. “Most of my students only learned in an odd way that Michaels even gave classes in the first place,” she says. “Some came in the store and asked. Some learned from a friend.”

The Community Classroom program is linked to under the “classes and events” tab on the top navigation bar on the Michaels website. From there, customers can enter a zip code to browse local class offerings. Gross feels this isn’t nearly enough.  “What I resent more than anything is the fact that they’re not going to promote the classes,” she says. “So they did nothing before, but now it’s minus nothing.”

According to Mallory Smith, Public Relations Manager for Michaels, the Community Classroom program is being promoted in a general way by the company. “The program is being promoted across Michaels owned channels (email, social media, local events, in-store signage, etc.) as well as being promoted by influencers and our existing brand partners,” Smith wrote in an email. “We provide the instructors with tips and templates to help them promote their classes but we do not promote each of the individual options on our owned channels.”

Gross is also concerned about how Community Classroom teachers are vetted. Before becoming a knitting teacher at Michaels Gross paid $85 to take a 15-hour training course with the Craft Yarn Council and became a certified knitting instructor, a requirement for the position when she began. That requirement, along with other teaching certification requirements, has now been dropped and Gross worries that unqualified teachers will be able to book classroom time. “Someone is looking at the class proposals, but I don’t know who, and I don’t know what criteria they’re using to say yay or nay,” she says. “My personal feeling is that it’s probably just based on how many supplies students are going to need to buy at the store.”

two women wearing earmuffs

Handknit earmuffs by Elaine Gross.

One advantage of the new program is that instructors are no longer limited to Michaels’ chosen curriculum or class pricing. A recent search in the Boston area revealed 30 classes ranging from a 27-minute Creations in Clay class in the Mansfield store for $15 to a three-hour introduction to the Silhouette Cameo class for $90 at the Cambridge store. Gross makes earmuffs that she sells online. She’s considering offering an earmuffs class now, something she wouldn’t have been able to do until now.

For Tracy Sparks being made a freelancer felt like yet another sign that Michaels doesn’t care very much about their instructors. Sparks has been teaching jewelry making classes at the Michaels in Santa Maria, California for five and a half years. In 2017 when Michaels cut instructor pay and dropped jewelry and paper craft classes from their official curriculum, Sparks’ store manager kept her on because she’d built a loyal a clientele of regular attendees. Now Sparks has to submit an online application to teach the same classes. Although she can theoretically set her own pricing, her students have come to expect the $15 workshop fee Michaels had formerly set. She feels she can’t raise her prices for fear of losing them. “Michaels trained my regulars to pay $15. They don’t realize they did a disservice to a lot of instructors,” she says.

jewelry by tracy sparks

Jewelry by Tracy Sparks.

Sparks points out that there’s an incentive for instructors like her to encourage their longtime students to attend classes as walk-ins, rather than register online. “I can just say as long as I have one person registered online, everybody else come and just give me the registration fee in person,” she explains. “This way I’d avoid having to hand over the 30% cut to Michaels.”

Although the Community Classroom program was tested in five cities before being rolled out nationwide, Gross and Sparks both mentioned that they don’t feel Michaels took enough instructor input into account, or provided store managers with enough information to help current instructors acclimate to the new system before it went live. When the Community Classroom program was announced last month, store managers seemed confused themselves and unable to answer many basic questions about enrollment, scheduling, payroll, cancellations, and refunds.

Gross has decided to wait to put in a Community Classroom application until she’s gotten answers from the corporate office about some of her questions. Sparks has put in several applications to teach jewelry classes at the Santa Maria Michaels in June and July. Although she’s excited to get back in the classroom, she’s concerned she’s lost some momentum with her students since she’s been unable to hold a workshop since February. “I miss them. I miss my students,” she says. “I’m very frustrated.”

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