(Certain) Help Wanted | Confessions of a Community College Dean
(Certain) Help Wanted | Confessions of a Community College Dean

Josh Kim asked a great question this week: “Why does the nation’s employee shortage seem to exist everywhere except higher ed?”

I remember wondering the same thing in the late ’90s, during the first dot-com boom. The academic job market in liberal arts fields was brutal, even as Pets.com was thriving. The disconnect is even more pronounced now.

But I’d put some qualifiers on the question. From a community college perspective, some fields are easy to hire in, and some are far harder.

For example, last year we had three full-time openings for nursing faculty. We had three applicants. That made the interview process relatively straightforward, but I’ll admit crossing my fingers that they’d all be good. (They were. Whew!) We’ve been trying to fill a full-time automotive tech position for a year now. We’ve done multiple searches for cybersecurity faculty, so far without success. Meanwhile, when we post a single position in English, we get dozens of highly qualified applicants.

As near as I can tell, the common denominator among the hard-to-hire areas is strong industry demand (and the strong salaries that go with it). Nurses can make more money working as nurses than they would teaching for us, so we have to hope that the work is appealing enough to be worth the sacrifice. In many of the humanities and social sciences, by contrast, there aren’t as many well-paying alternatives available.

In a collective bargaining environment, the need for salary consistency across fields within the college buts up against wild salary inconsistency across fields outside the college. I’ve had the frustrating experience repeatedly of having otherwise interested and very appealing candidates walk away when they realize the severity of the pay cut they’d have to take.

Oddly, this phenomenon -- well-known to practitioners in the field -- is completely absent from most policy discussion about workforce development. If we’re going to prepare students in a field like cybersecurity -- which we know is in high demand -- then we need qualified faculty. The people who are qualified to teach it can make far more money elsewhere. We would need significant and sustained increases in operating funding to attract and keep those folks. And in collective bargaining settings, we would either need some sort of special category for certain fields or enough money to pay everyone on the scale of the highest-demand fields. I can attest from direct experience that asking people who make $200,000 in the field to come work for us for $65,000 doesn’t work very often. As a result, the fields that many policy people most want us to stress are effectively off the table, or capped at very small sizes. The economic hotness of those fields makes them harder to staff.

All of that said, though, the original question still holds in many traditional academic fields. We know many of the basic causes: Baumol’s cost disease, the pyramid-scheme structure of graduate education, public disinvestment and (in many areas) declining numbers of 18-year-olds all come into play. Tenure does, too, to the extent that it reduces turnover. When you combine negative enrollment growth with systemically low turnover, slow hiring is a predictable outcome. Climbing walls and lazy rivers are red herrings. If those were important, community colleges would be hiring wildly. They’re not. The same is true of spending on administration. If that were the problem, community colleges -- which have the thinnest administrative ranks by far -- would be hiring wildly. They’re not.

On a cultural level, part of the issue is the spread of a version of market fundamentalism that is deeply skeptical of any unarmed public enterprise. Hiring is easy if you have the money to do it; the core of the problem is that we have decided not to direct money this way anymore. That inclination has ugly roots, but many of its adherents don’t know its history and haven’t thought through its effects. The most effective ideology is the one you don’t even know you hold; you just take it as factual. You would think that the history of the 20th century would have warned people away from absolutisms, but market absolutism is alive and well. It survived the Great Recession, and often passes as “realism.” But it’s a mistake, as absolutisms tend to be.

A more pragmatic version of realism might acknowledge that training people for high-salaried jobs requires luring instructors away from those high-salaried jobs. That requires, well, high salaries, and those require funding. If we generalize from English departments, we might not see that.

Kudos to Josh Kim for asking the right question. I hope we can start somehow making the question moot.



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