Independent contracting concerns

Students might not anticipate the realities of working as independent contractors.

Brian Reinken

My cellphone started buzzing with a call from an unknown number at nearly 10 p.m. on a Monday night. Thinking someone must have accidentally dialed me, I didn’t pick up. To my surprise, the caller left a voice message. To my even greater surprise, the message revealed I was a possible candidate for a paid summer internship.

As eager as any college student would be, I hastily called back. The caller — who claimed to have gotten my information from a University of Minnesota dean’s list — claimed to work for a company called Southwestern Advantage. I agreed to attend an informational meeting on campus the next day. I hung up feeling rather pleased with myself, honestly.

But my feelings changed when I Googled Southwestern Advantage.

Southwestern Advantage, also known as Southwestern Company, employs students from around the world as independent contractors to sell textbooks door-to-door in the United States. The company pays based on how many books it sells. According to the company website, the average monthly profit for a first-year worker is $2,569, and returning “dealers” nearly double this rate by their second year on average.

So what’s the catch? For one, since they’re independent contractors, students aren’t guaranteed any money at all. If you have difficulty making sales, then you’re out of luck. Yes, it’s technically possible to make thousands of dollars over the summer, but approximately 30 percent of first-year workers surrender and return home before the season ends.

Furthermore, students relocate to unfamiliar parts of the country, where the company expects them to cover living expenses and find a host family for the summer. Southwestern Advantage boasts of providing more than 80 hours of training, free of charge. This consists of a week in Nashville, Tenn.

Finally, Southwestern Advantage advises students that the most successful salespeople work 12 hours a day, six days a week. Some students work for more than 80 hours weekly.

The students are free to follow their own schedules and manage their businesses however they want. However, many students seem confused about this fact and felt pressure to conform to the company’s pre-existing business model.

Southwestern Company Truth is a website where Southwestern workers share their experiences working in the program. Testimonials speak variously of perceived brainwashing, cult mentality, unsafe working conditions and corporate dishonesty.

Such horror stories obviously don’t hold true for every worker. However, the severity of some experiences — and the sheer number of stories detailing them — calls Southwestern Advantage’s motives into question. It’s safe to say that it’s not a typical summer job.

Southwestern Advantage, however, is not the only corporation to face accusations of abusing students’ unfamiliarity with the practices of the professional world.

Vector Marketing employs many students to sell knives door-to-door and pays its contractors on commission. It was the target of a class-action lawsuit after it allegedly failed to adequately compensate its California contractors for the time they spent in training. The settlement cost the company $13 million. Currently, Vector Marketing is under investigation for its practices in other states.

Student knowledge

Is it appropriate to say that these companies and others like them are scamming, misleading or mistreating students? The nature of independent contracting may prevent a definitive answer.

Without question, contract work seems difficult and potentially unrewarding. But not everyone has an unpleasant experience, and independent contracts provide some students with opportunities to develop their marketing and management skills.

Furthermore, because students are often desperate for employment, and because so many internships are unpaid, the prospect of earning several thousand dollars over the summer is exciting. The prospect of doing so in an unfamiliar part of the country is even more so.

But choosing to work for a company like Southwestern Advantage seems to be a gamble with very high stakes. Corporations advocate their own interests, and even an informational session may not fully reveal the reality of the work experience.

 If the University of Minnesota allows Southwestern Advantage to host informational meetings on campus, it should also, in the interests of its students, host meetings that advise prospective workers of the difficulties and potential financial dangers of independent work.

Students could benefit from such meetings regardless of their potential employer. The purpose of an internship or job is to gain experience in the workforce, but when so many students are selecting a serious job for the first time, they haven’t yet developed the business savvy.

In a professional setting, firsthand learning is an invaluable experience — but it’s important to understand what exactly will be on the syllabus.