Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Another Successful Prediction

They say that a prophet is never appreciated in his own country. That said, this article from IHE certainly rang a bell. Back in 2006, I wrote

[T]here’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.

and so it has come to pass. It even matched my timeline! (Remember, as Easterbrook likes to say, all predictions guaranteed or your money back. Reading the blog is free, so...)

Actually, the reality is somewhat less elegant, but they've still got two years (by my original timeline) to get it right. According to the article, Kirtland Community College in Michigan has come up with an adjunct-laundering arrangement with a temp agency in order to save money on benefits. The college recruits and interviews prospective adjuncts, whom it then refers to the temp agency. The temp agency is the employer of record, taking care of social security taxes and suchlike, while assigning the adjuncts to KCC as a worksite. That way, KCC is relieved of the obligation of paying contributions to the adjuncts' state retirement fund.

The arrangement as currently designed is silly, and perfect lawsuit bait. By doing the recruiting and interviewing, KCC is acting like an employer. The temp agency is acting as little more than a payroll department. But if KCC allowed the temp agency to do the recruiting and interviewing, I could see the arrangement holding up in court. In other words, if it functioned less like a fig leaf and more like Kelly Profs, it would probably succeed.

The added incentive to go the Kelly Profs route, as detailed in my initial post, is that it would allow the temp agency to function as a placement center. Prospective adjuncts could apply and interview in one place, and thereby cover multiple colleges at once. Harried department chairs would have a single number to call when they need people, thereby saving time and energy. And a single agency doing all that screening could get around the HR headaches of umpteen zillion separate chairs winging it on hiring practices, with varying levels of legal acumen.

A certain demystifying of the employment relationship could be weirdly healthy. Having a central coordinator could make it easier for freeway flyers to get logistically possible schedules. And importing a clearly mercenary model could help dispel the false hope that actually contributes to so much bitterness and exploitation.

Oddly enough, a Kelly Profs style temp agency would make a wonderful target for unionization. Collecting all those freeway flyers in one convenient location would benefit not only department chairs, but union organizers. In a perverse way, following the logic of temp work all the way out could actually improve the conditions of temp work. At least, it would until the next temp agency came along.

(Back in the 90's, during one of my piece-together-a-living moments, I did some temp work. I recall reading back then that the unique evil of temp agencies is that they make workers compete against themselves. If you sign up as a temp with two different agencies, hoping to maximize your opportunities, you allow two agencies to try to underbid each other on your behalf. “We'll pimp him out for ten bucks an hour!” “We'll do nine!” “Eight!” Bleah.)

In the short run, the KCC arrangement is silly. It's too clearly a fig leaf, and unlikely to stand up to legal challenge. But taking it to the next level would be both easy and (probably) legal. The cost savings could still be there, at least until the union organizers make serious headway, and the logistical issues are not to be sneezed at. I could even imagine the temp agencies contracting with 'content experts' (that is, full-time faculty) to help develop rubrics (that is, to 'consult') with which to evaluate prospective new temps. Honestly, the leap involved is tiny, and the economic logic is non-trivial.

Once a system starts following its own logic, it tends to keep going. Although the particulars will vary, I'd wager that this won't be the last time we see something like this. It's just too predictable.