Friday, February 12, 2010


Ask the Administrator: No Exit?

An off-the-beaten-path correspondent writes:

I graduated from Public University back in 2008 and since then I have been a yellowpages salesman and then moved onto a scam sales company which I had presumed was a legitimate business model when starting. My question to you: I love sales but I want a more secure position and I applied for a position with a local community college as an educational planner and retention specialist. This position offers a fairly low base salary but I could see myself staying there for a long while. At the community college level is there a lot of chance for promotion? I would love to take this position but I don't want to put myself in another dead end job situation.

I won't go into the path that took you here, since it is what it is. But the question raises a wonderful point about career paths.

Many staff positions at community (and other) colleges don't lend themselves to obvious career ladders. That's not to say people can't move up; it's just to say that the paths often aren't immediately apparent. Educational planners, academic advisors, and other support staff in student service areas often hit the ceiling of their role very early on. When that happens, there's a choice to be made. (The same is true of faculty, in many ways. Once they hit "full professor" status, the only place left to go is administration, which is a fundamentally different job.)

As you correctly point out, some trades are clearer than others. Depending on the local situation, it wouldn't be unusual to see a de facto trade of higher job security for lower pay. If you don't care about the money, for whatever reason, then that's fine. But if money is an issue, a low ceiling can be a real demotivator.

On the campuses I've seen, the ed planners or academic advisors typically report to some sort of director, who, in turn, reports to a dean of something much larger -- usually 'student affairs' or something like that. The turnover rate among directors seems to be pretty low -- admittedly, that's anecdotal, and I'm open to correction on that -- but the skill set required to be taken seriously at the dean level is much broader. A dean of students or something similar requires a graduate degree and at least passing familiarity with areas like counseling, admissions, residency laws (a very big deal in some systems, not so much in others), transfer requirements, discipline, and the like. It also requires a pretty good sense of the academic side of the house, ideally through personal teaching experience. Being a good educational planner isn't nearly enough.

Over time, a work area with high security, low pay, and little or no prospect for advancement can get pretty stale, if not toxic.

If your ambition is to move up quickly, I wouldn't advise going this route. But if the job sounds appealing enough that you'd be willing to stick with it a while at its current pay level, go for it. At least here you'll be selling something worth selling.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen an issue with low career ceilings on your campus? Is there a graceful way around that?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I've noticed support staff move around on my CC campus, but not generally up -- unless they had an advanced degree when they started and were "underemployed"...

IF the CC is a state institution, there may be some room to move up into the statewide organization -- or into other state jobs. At that point, there would be an advantage with seniority.
"Over time, a work area with high security, low pay, and little or no prospect for advancement can get pretty stale, if not toxic."

I would add that if it doesn't have variety, this can happen, too. I was lucky to have a lot of variety in my job at first, but eventually, the job became routine, due in part to my own shifting interests and to shifting needs of the school. Hitting the ceiling early isn't fun, and I found very few possibilities for even a lateral move as most people stuck around forever. I don't blame them. The jobs were decent in terms of work load and pay, the chances of getting fired or laid off, slim. Who wouldn't stick around?
It's a big issue for staff at my SLAC. It's very difficult to progress in your career here. Our region has a ton of underemployment, and many of our staff have graduate degrees and a high skill level, despite the relatively low pay and limited room for advancement. Motivated hard workers often only stay for a couple of years before moving on. Others stay for various reasons--in my case, I like working with our students, I'm not willing to re-locate and the job is compatible with my family responsibilities. It is frustrating, though, and I'm planning to move up and out within the next couple of years if I can.
Am I missing something? I don't see why past experience as a salesperson would qualify one for a position as "educational planner and retention specialist," though perhaps the position title is hiding something else (more like sales).
There are tons of "low-level" (I use that term grudgingly, because the work they do is incredibly important even if their status in the institutional hierarchy is low) staff employees at my university with little or no opportunities for advancement. They range from custodians up to what in the private sector would be called middle-management. They are a huge untapped resource. I'd love to hear from folks at other CCs and universities that have developed career-progression paths for these folks commensurate with what would be available at private-sector companies of similar size.
"Over time, a work area with high security, low pay, and little or no prospect for advancement can get pretty stale, if not toxic." Add "too much damn work" to that, and that's why I am "former" CC staff.
One thing to consider are possible educational benefits. 20+ years ago I worked as a lowly administrative assistant so I could pick up a second maters degree, nearly gratis. It was extremely beneficial and helped me on my way to a Ph.D.

So, I would say, "It depends on WHY you want to have a given job in higher ed." I opted for the aa route because of the educational benefits (and health insurance), the hours weren't insane so I could continue gigging and teaching music, and I had a steady (if LOW) income.
You can worry about promotions after you get the job. ;-)

At my CC, jobs with those titles usually require an advanced degree in higher ed or counseling. There are, however, "retention" jobs that involve tutoring that will hire based on a BS or BA degree if the skills are there. In addition, most of the staff support positions only require a BA or BS degree, if that. It is not unusual to see slightly upward moves around campus that probably help give a change of pace, but there will be a top level that you can't cross without a masters.
I spent 4 years as a university staff member before dropping out to have kids. Now, after taking a few years out of the workforce, I'm in university staff again. I didn't necessarily want to go back to academia. But they were one of the very few folks who would even consider hiring me with that big gap in my resume.

And therein lies the advantage. I've got 2 small kids to pick up from daycare every night. I need to be out at a reasonable hour. I get great benefits, a nice work environment, and lots of vacation time to spend with my family. It's a normal thing at a university, to have a family and want to be with them, and you're not expected to give your life over to the organization, at least not at the staff level.

But I also make DIRT. New college grads would be embarrassed to make what I make, and before my break to have kids, I had almost 10 years of progressively responsible work experience under my belt. I am underpaid, compared to similar private sector jobs, by at least 10K.

There is some room for advancement. Staff positions get more specialized as you move up the ladder; somebody has to manage all those administrative assistants, and keep budgets, and do human resource tasks. But the ladder is, as you note, very short. The wall between faculty and staff, meanwhile, is high. It is bad for morale to feel that gulf all the time. The only time a faculty member invited me to lunch was when I was leaving; I was never invited to their off-campus work events, but they had no problem talking about their faculty happy hours and parties in front of me, as though I couldn't hear. I felt like a non-person. And this was at a job where people LIKED me and gave me excellent references.

Really, my best hope is to enjoy this university position while my kids are small, but also use tuition benefits to further my education. And realistically, when that happens, there will be no place for me at the university anymore. It's a very poor model, one that treats employees pretty well but doesn't foster ambition at all. You're going to get two kids of staff: folks who hang on to the job for life because of the benefits, and folks who do it for 2-3 years, then move on. Very little in the middle.
I couldn't agree more with Anonymous. I have very little incentive beyond personal pride to excel at my job. Hard work and innovation are not rewarded with merit pay or promotions, so why bust your butt?
And she (I suspect Anonymous is a she) is exactly right about the faculty-staff divide. I've gotten over it at this point, but there is almost no socialization between faculty and staff. Many of our staff hold terminal degrees whereas some of our faculty do not, but never the twain shall meet.
I'd second some of the positive comments (educational benefits, being able to deal with being a parent), but add one negative issue:

"Over time, a work area with high security, " can become a work area with no job security, if the economy crashes and state revenues drop, while the legislature would rather fund the prisons and award tax cuts.
icolleges and universities routinely operate on the 80-20 rule: 20% of the people do 80% of the work.

deans usually have 3 choices when it comes to a true promotion. the first is a manager who will do an average job, stay off the radar, and will neither be beneficial or detrimental to the department. he or she will be 100% loyal, and will play ball when the dean/department inevitably has an issue regarding a legal matter in which the school is obviously at fault and needs to immediately perform some housecleaning. the second an extremely hard worker who excels at everything, who will make big, beneficial changes for your department, but will alienate the slackers (80%) by routinely outperforming them, and by being constantly infuriated by their laziness, stupidity, ignorance, and complacency (often at the outing of the dean's actual lack of performance). the last option is that of a friend or relative of another dean or high-up employee. unfortunately, the first and last options happen the most often (with the last option happening a lot more than people want to admit).

part of the problem with universities is that, most of the time, staff positions do not open until someone leaves. therefore, if your boss isn't going to retire for another 20 years, that means you won't move up for 20 years. if you're an analyst II, you won't become a III until an analyst III leaves that position. seniority is a major issue.

in my opinion and experience, universities don't require smart people to succeed. anywhere that requires more business degrees than engineering degrees is going to house a lot of mundane people/positions. this is great for the 80%, but it drives the other 20% insane. i could say a lot more, but i'll stop right here.
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