The flexible workforce–friend or foe?

While I was perusing Facebook this late afternoon, I saw a post from someone who is an adjunct instructor where I teach. He’s also been an adjunct at other places, and also held more full-time teaching positions at various schools, both at the secondary and higher education levels. He posted something that he saw from LinkedIn that showed that there were a LOT of adjunct instructor positions open in New Jersey (where we are both located). He was puzzled as to why.

My first thought was that the next semester will be starting in about two months, so I’m sure that schools are now scrambling to find instructors for certain courses. But it was my second thought that made me think that either I’m a bit clever or I’m on to something here with the economy.

My second thought directly relates to what’s going on in the tech comm industry, and it seems to be pouring over into higher education, from the looks of it. This is what I mean specifically: right now, a good part of the tech comm industry work availability is based on gigs and a gig-based economy. There are very few full-time, employee jobs for technical communicators these days, unless you hit the employment lottery. I’m sure there are a lot of tech comm’ers who will back me up when I say that most of the time, it’s a matter of us going to consulting contract to consulting contract, anywhere from a few weeks to a couple years, but never as an employee (except perhaps to a recruiting agency). Some people like being able to jump from job to job, but I’m sure there’s a good sized segment of us that don’t feel that way, and wouldn’t mind the security of something longer term and permanent employment (for as much as that’s worth these days). For example, I’m currently in a situation where I work for a recruiter, but they employ almost the entire department that contributes to the work, and each “employee/consultant” is considered a “freelance consultant”, meaning that they will assign you work that is project-based, not X hours per week. The company that employs the recruiter has this as “flexible staffing”, meaning they bring on or drop consultants as they need to do the workload they have. That works great for the company, as they only need to pay for what they need. The recruiter benefits, because they are still getting money in. It only benefits the consultant in that they work the hours they are available. If you are trying to get full-time work, it’s only available if they have that much available for you. It’s good when you have to make doctor’s appointments or take a day off because of a conference, but not so great for job security.

Now look at adjunct instructors. In my mind, universities and colleges are doing the same thing. Instead of trying to bring in more full-time staff, or even true part-time staff, they bring in “consultants”, AKA adjuncts, who can teach the courses, but don’t pay much for the many hours that they put into a course, even if it’s one class. If they don’t need the adjunct for the next semester, they drop them. If they need them, then they hire. I see this possibly happening as more people are not looking into academic careers as they are not well-paying and don’t have the same benefits as using their expertise in the private–or even public sector, depending on the job. It’s flexible staffing on the university level. I’m sure it’s a way for a university to save money, but long-term, just like in the “real world”, I don’t know that it’s a great solution. It doesn’t help the university when it comes to continuity for the curriculum and the strength of a department’s program, just as it can be precarious with many hands and no governance that happens in industry. I feel like I’ve seen this before, and now I’m seeing again.

In either case, the “flexible staff” is doing the same work as someone who’s permanent, but without all the benefits and job security. Again, that might work on a business level, but it doesn’t always work well on a human level.  It’s a precarious position to be in. Why would someone even take these “flexible” staffing jobs if they aren’t so great? Well, it’s the difference of being employed–even if it’s for a short time–and being unemployed. That’s why. Something instead of nothing is sometimes the only choice available. I know it has been for me for a long time.

What do you think? Can you think of any other examples? Am I seeing something that isn’t there, or am I, indeed, onto something that is a reflection of our economy and the way anyone does business anymore? (I don’t think it’s a good trend, by the way, if you can’t tell.) Include your comments below.

About TechCommGeekMom

Danielle M. Villegas is a technical communicator who has recently started her own technical communications consultancy, Dair Communications. She has worked at the International Refugee Committee, MetLife, Novo Nordisk, and BASF North America, with a background in content strategy, web content management, social media, project management, e-learning, and client services. Danielle is best known in the technical communications world for her blog, TechCommGeekMom.com, which has continued to flourish since it was launched during her graduate studies at NJIT in 2012. She has presented webinars and seminars for Adobe, the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the IEEE ProComm, TCUK (ISTC) and at Drexel University’s eLearning Conference. She has written articles for the STC Intercom, STC Notebook, the Content Rules blog, and The Content Wrangler as well. You can learn more about Danielle on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/daniellemvillegas, on Twitter @techcommgeekmom, or through her blog.
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2 Responses to The flexible workforce–friend or foe?

  1. I’m surprised at the high number (12K?) and still suspect there might be an error on LinkedIn’s part! I have also seen several schools taking courses away from adjuncts and giving them to full faculty. But it’s obvious to anyone in higher education that most colleges could not survive without adjuncts and can’t afford to fill classes with FT faculty. They hire fewer FT faculty and een fewer on a tenure track.

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