Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Trailing Spouses

A new correspondent writes:

I'm sure the "trailing spouse" issue is a loaded weapon waiting to be
cleaned, but I wonder if you have any words of wisdom. My wife just
applied for a teaching job at a university in a different city.
Meanwhile, I'm currently the director of IT at a small college. I've
worked in higher ed IT for (double digit) years now, and would prefer to stay
there rather than go corporate--though obviously, if push comes to shove,
I'll take what I can get.

Is there any point to my wife raising the issue of whether I might expect
any assistance finding a job at some point during the interviewing
process? If so, when? I have already quietly applied for a couple of
nearby jobs (no takers yet) and I don't expect to get one handed to me on
a silver platter. But it seems if there is help on offer, I should take
advantage in the best way possible--without raising it inappropriately and
turning it into a side issue for my wife's search.

This should be easy; no tricky emotional issues here!

As with so many things, the answer depends on your place in the market hierarchy. If your wife is a superstar, or if she’s in a ridiculously high-demand/low-applicant field (like Nursing), or if the school is in the middle of nowhere and has serious ‘flight risk’ anxieties, she has considerable negotiating power. (Some colleges in the middle of nowhere actually prefer hiring couples, specifically to reduce flight risk.) In that case, I’d suggest shooting for the moon once it’s clear that the deal is moving towards closure. On the other hand, if she’s one among many applicants, you really can’t expect much.

There’s a very, very famous university (you’ve heard of it) in my state that decided it could outsource its trailing spouses to neighboring colleges. Apparently, it had failed to land a few superstars in recent years due to trailing spouses, so its solution was to establish a statewide database on which its neighbors could see the c.v.’s of trailing spouses. I’ll call it SpouseNet. The idea was that the rest of us would be so eternally grateful for the also-rans from Snooty U that we would happily employ them, just to bask in the reflected glory of knowing that we had somehow contributed to the continuing greatness of a school that wouldn’t otherwise share its bottle of Evian if we were on fire.

As you can imagine, SpouseNet has been, to date, a complete failure. It was conceived in a typical fit of institutional narcissism, with absolutely no attempt even to address the neighboring schools’ obvious question, “what’s in it for us?” Since there’s no incentive for us to placate Snooty U, and we are bound by some pretty stringent open-search/anti-discrimination laws, we ignore SpouseNet altogether, except for occasionally asking “what were they thinking?”

(On the other hand, there’s a hefty chunk of change to be made for some enterprising type who sets up shop in an area with lots of colleges and establishes a temp agency for adjuncts. “I need a cultural anthropologist, stat!” Anybody who has ever chaired a department with significant numbers of adjuncts knows that there’s always that one last section to staff two days before the semester begins, it’s full of students, and absolutely nobody can take it. A temp agency for adjuncts – call it Kelly Profs – could be the number a harried chair could call. “Hello, Kelly Profs? I need three daytime sections of freshman comp covered, starting Tuesday. No problem? Wow! Thanks, Kelly Profs!” Dollars to donuts, someone does this in the next five years. Hell, if I had the entrepreneurial zeal and absolutely no soul, I’d do it myself.)

Back to you. Something you could do, once your wife is in the negotiating stage as the final candidate, is ask for access to the college’s Career Services office. This costs the college next to nothing, so it’s easy to throw in, and it would give you the considerable advantage of access to people who really know the local market. It’s a far cry from a guaranteed job, but it’s something that even a cc could afford to do, and it might help. Obviously, this is a higher-payoff strategy in a densely-populated area.

College budgets and policies are generally tight enough now that, other than the really flush and elite institutions, the days of ‘creating jobs’ for people are pretty much over.

In practice, I’ve seen trailing spouses frequently become either long-term adjuncts or, over time, hybrid faculty/support staff. These are valuable roles for the institutions, precisely because they pay squat. Once you’re typecast as ‘place-bound,’ the institution has very little reason to pay you very much. (Back in the 1980’s, my Mom worked at the cc in Northern Town. When she asked for a raise, she was turned down, and told, point-blank, that it was because she was a “place-bound female.” Mom being Mom, she immediately found another job three hundred miles away. You don’t mess with Mom.) Using the Career Services folk at the college to find work with another employer in the same area is probably your best bet. The other employer won’t see you as a trailing spouse, so it won’t feel that same kind of leverage over you.

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.