Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Ladders and Risk

We have some high-skill positions that don’t really lead to the next rung up on the org chart.  They don’t lead to the job above them, and they don’t really lead to other higher-ranked jobs, either.  They’re static.

My college isn’t unique in that; some variation on the theme is common at community colleges.

Faculty positions are one thing; on a day-to-day level, a full professor’s job and an assistant professor’s job can look very much the same.  But people usually know that going in, and for those with the inclination, it’s possible to move into a department chair role, and from there to deanships.  

But if, say, you only have a few librarians, and the leader isn’t going anywhere, then even a very good librarian with drive is sort of stuck.  (That’s not a coded message to or about anyone; it’s an example about structure.)  Being stuck in a good job with benefits isn’t the worst thing in the world, but after a while, stuck is stuck.  Many are fine with that, but for those who aren’t, it can be frustrating.

The Delta Cost Project noted some time ago that community colleges have been largely exempt from “administrative bloat,” and that’s certainly consistent with what I’ve seen.  That’s great in the sense that more of our budgets, such as they are, go to student contact.  But it tends to mean that some very good people can get stuck in roles they’ve outgrown, or expect to outgrow soon, and there’s no realistic way of creating new positions to remedy that.

In a spot like that, sometimes a strategic lateral can make sense.  That may mean taking a role that doesn’t necessarily offer any short-term benefit over the current one, but that adds to a skill set and opens up more possibilities in the future.  That may involve some risk, especially if it means going from a secure position to a less secure one, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to believe that much of what we think is secure, isn’t.  Political winds shift; budgets dry up; leadership changes; colleges merge.  Getting too settled in one spot is a risk in itself.  

Side assignments can be a toe in the water.  The one who steps up to do the college-wide initiative is more likely to get noticed than the one who doesn’t.  That isn’t necessarily fair, but it’s true.  My own first foray into administration involved an accreditation self-study, for instance, but committee work can do it, task forces can do it, and side projects can do it.  Anything that shows, and/or develops, skills beyond the settled role can open up possibilities.

Obviously, economics underlie all of this.  When an organization is expanding rapidly, opportunities for career growth abound.  When it’s under extended austerity, they don’t.  Far more of American higher ed is under austerity than is under rapid growth, which explains a lot about the job market.  A college that’s desperate to fill roles is likelier to take chances on candidates who are stretching than a college that’s fighting to prevent or minimize layoffs.  But institutional conservatism shouldn’t become personal conservatism; if anything, extended austerity should send the message that staying put is increasingly risky.  

Austerity-driven flattening of org charts may look egalitarian, but when it cuts off career ladders, the effect can be quite different.  Organizationally, we can’t spend our way out of that.  Personally, I hope some smart and capable people are able to create their own ladders, even if it involves taking some risks.  At this point, the choice isn’t between risk and safety; it’s between conscious risk and unconscious risk.  Better to take a risk than to bear one.