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Higher Ed Kelly Girls

April 19, 2007

Robert Zeksky, speaking to a pro-union conference, argued that unionism should give way to incorporation in higher ed. Here is the IHE article. Read, especially, the comments. Here is my response.

I am coming to this discussion from a unique position: I have been both an adjunct and an IT consultant. The former gave me the small wages to push me to be the latter.

I design, develop and deliver specialized software training for fortune whatever companies. But, since IT is ever evolving and projects are of a limited time (6-18 months from end to end), few companies bring on full-time workers. Rather, they hire out to consultants to design, configure and implement their software “solutions.” Then I come in. I am hired to take their technical documentation and turn it into trainable/teachable materials. Then I train the end-users how to use the new system. It’s not Chaucer, but it pays well.

The “incorporation” that Zemsky calls for is actually in full operation in IT services. There are consulting companies which employ full-timers (W2’s) with benefits and retirement options that are then “placed” with the client to fulfill a need. There are other agencies who headhunt talent, taking a fee out of the bill-rate for the placement. With either model (and there are many other variations), the one with the knowledge has some measure of security and control over how their services will be compensated.

Teaching is a service industry (more so than a mission field), and it is time to establish a compensation structure that benefits the knowledge worker.

How would this work? For more on my answer, see me blog:

As a seasoned worker, I get a much higher bill-rate than when I first entered the field. This is due more to project experience than to continued employment with one company. In fact, I have worked for three consulting firms as an employee, but have been placed on many projects as an independent. While I like the benefits of an employee, I also like the higher bill-rate of being independent. In fact, I incorporated myself two years ago, and now I pay my own benefits.

I get work because my services and skills are in demand. Here is where an academic incorporation would get sticky…some knowledge is not in high demand, but of high value (fine art, philosophy, etc.). Market forces should not be left to determine if these survive.

But even that fear is relatively low. Even if the bulk of higher ed went incorporated (which is not to say going corporate), there will be those schools whose mission is to provide a specialized educational opportunity—like an Ivy, Conservatory, etc.—and whose class level will counter the market forces (see the example of high art).

Would the average comp instructor benefit from being able to compete on the greater market on an experience and skill level? I don’t know. One would hope that is happening right now, but I doubt it is. Would the average comp instructor want to be a “Kelly Girl” dropped into a class willy nilly? Probably not.

I do think, though, that this model merits some serious consideration, before dismissal. Unionization may be the ultimate best way, but its lack of traction indicates that there is room for other considerations to this problem.


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