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Occupational education deserves new contract approach

Yesterday, I wrote about the trend of community colleges losing occupational education faculty to other institutions and the private sector. In some cases, the faculty’s negotiated pay scale does not reflect the cost of living in the community college district. Additionally, the prevailing faculty contract may not permit bonuses, incentives or other remuneration designed to retain qualified staff.

Failing to negotiate recruiting and retention incentives leaves the institution open to losing hard-to-replace faculty members, who also happen to be members of the faculty union. In addition, it leaves open the possibility that these “hard-to-fill” faculty positions will lead to permanent program closures. After all, the institution cannot run a program when it can’t find qualified instructors who are also willing to accept a pay cut when they leave the private sector.

This situation is most likely to arise in occupational education programs. Nursing instructors can make more money working as nurses than they can as nursing instructors. Auto mechanics can make more money working in a shop than they can teaching aspiring mechanics. Computer programmers can make more money writing code than they can sitting in a classroom.

The reality here is that altruism doesn’t pay the mortgage. Qualified, experienced instructors should not have to leave higher education because it doesn’t make fiscal sense to remain in the classroom. And their free market value has to be able to weigh in on their compensation. That is the only way to ensure that instructors in high-wage, high-demand fields remain in the classroom. Further, it is the best way to entice additional qualified individuals into the teaching profession.

Laws of supply and demand apply to occupational education

Private sector employers increase wages, provide signing bonuses, and offer retention incentives to hire new employees or keep valued employees on the payroll. About one out of seven employers choose not to fill positions when they can’t find the right candidate for the right price. Higher education institutions don’t really have that option. Not having qualified occupational education instructors on staff means not running classes and/or programs.

I have mentioned this before but Coconino Community College had to suspend its automotive services technician certificate program earlier this year because its instructors returned to the private sector. Their rationale was that their pay was too low to absorb the cost of living in Flagstaff, AZ.

CCC was able to restart the program, offering only two courses in an 8-week format. Program suspension resulted in the loss of 46 students who had enrolled in Fall classes. When CCC restarted the program, only 9 students returned.

CCC’s program first enrolled students in 2020, so it’s not as though it had a long, storied history of serving the community. Rather, the program came about because dealerships in the area needed trained auto technicians.

The rebooted program’s only instructor will teach four classes in the Spring semester, using facilities provided by a local Honda dealership. Students must complete 30 credits to earn the certificate. Even if the program’s one instructor can offer four courses per semester year-round, it will take full-time students a minimum of 3 semesters to complete the program, depending on course availability. That could stretch to four or more, if students can’t enroll in the courses they need in a timely way.

Community colleges risk losing occupational programs

The car dealers in Flagstaff still need technicians and they’re not likely to wait up to two years for students to complete a program. More likely, they will poach students out of the program they insisted on developing. (And that assumes the program’s one instructor will remain on the payroll.)

This unfortunate situation is set to replay among occupational education instructors at community colleges around the country. If recruiting and retaining qualified instructors is a priority, faculty contracts need to recognize the impact of supply and demand on instructor pay.

Photo Credit: Jazz Guy , via Flickr