Tuesday, February 03, 2009

An Occupational Program We Can't Sell

In a passing conversation a while back with a colleague who routinely works with local employers, I heard that the single occupation for which we got the most requests from private employers is...

help desk? no...

construction? no...

sales? no...

Secretaries. Administrative assistants. Office managers.

We have a program dedicated to training students for these jobs. Back in the day, it was called “secretarial sciences.” Now it's something like “administrative professionals.” We get hundreds of requests annually from employers. Last year we graduated single digits. We're on the verge of eliminating the program, entirely for lack of enrollment. We can't give seats away.

I'm told that back in the 80's, the program was huge. Now it's dying, though not for lack of employer interest. The students just don't want it.

I've been perplexed by this for a while now. The jobs are out there, a two-year degree is enough, and the salaries, while unspectacular, beat most of what's available with a two-year degree. There's little heavy lifting, and it's not unique to any one industry (and therefore vulnerable to the quirks of any one industry). And yet, student interest is negligible.

Between observing and asking around, I'm starting to develop the outlines of a theory as to why the disconnect is so dramatic. Refinements or corrections from my wise and worldly readers are more than welcome.

Part of the issue is technology. At many cc's, in my observation, secretarial sciences program became much more technologically-focused over time. Some of that makes sense, given the ubiquity of computers and Microsoft Office. But for various reasons, both internal and external, many of the programs wildly overshot the degree of technology that most positions actually require. The students who might envision themselves in relatively generic office jobs often shy away from technical courses that strike them, sometimes correctly, as superfluous.

In addition to the technological expectations, there's also an entirely legitimate expectation of solid writing and speaking skills. With the technical skills, that's a potent and rare combination, and the students who have it all tend not to go into this program.

Part of it is the availability of other options. As we've become far more successful in persuading young women that they can pursue just about anything, that's exactly what they've done. This hasn't yet had much of an impact on the Nursing program, but the higher salaries there may explain some of that.

But there's another possibility that someone alerted me to recently. Administrative assistant positions usually involve taking orders, and having very little control over one's own work life. There isn't much authority that goes with the role. The other historically-female jobs – teacher, nurse – at least carry some authority in a particular context. These positions don't carry much workaday autonomy, which limits their appeal.

I'll admit not having thought of that one, but it makes some sense. Part of what I miss about being on faculty is the sense of relative autonomy in the classroom. (Administration is much more about cooperating than it is about commanding, if you do it right.) The prospect of combining a lack of autonomy with modest pay and limited advancement isn't terribly appealing.

Although I know this isn't unique to my cc, I don't know if it's regional. Wise and worldly readers – have you seen a similar disconnect on your campus? Is there a better explanation for it?