Staffing Crisis: the U.S.

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

This is the second in a series of articles about the affect that the global economic crisis has on your prospects as an academic jobseeker. In this article the situation in the US will be explored. We will be asking how the crisis will affect the futures of graduate students and those looking for adjunct and tenured positions.

Are jobs being lost?

In some industries the US has been the hardest hit by the credit crisis so far, but according to the Chronicle the vast majority of US public and private colleges that run four year degrees (the equivalent to the UK's Higher Education Institutions) have managed to avoid laying off staff. A quarter of the colleges who took part in the survey had considered staff redundancy but only 10% had resorted to it, the others choosing instead to make cut backs elsewhere.

However, job losses are only a part of the story. If a squeeze has been placed on hiring new staff then life is incredibly difficult for jobseekers in what is an already competitive market place. Universities, especially those that rely on large endowments, are finding their investments are shrinking in the current climate and so less money will be available for things such as staff costs.

What about new jobseekers?

So, how does this all affect the jobseeker in the US market? Well, it's certainly a tough time to be looking for a tenure track job. Many institutions have frozen their hiring of permanent, ‘tenured' members of staff, meaning that no new jobs are being advertised currently. This is because all requests for new staff are being denied at institutional level. When tenured staff leave or retire they are simply not being replaced or they are replaced with short-term contract staff (‘adjuncts').

However, although fewer job adverts are appearing, the American system of continual advertising makes the situation very difficult to fully comprehend. In normal circumstances, an advert for new staff in a particular department will be posted continually and applications will be considered at any time of the year. Many of these adverts are not being removed from online jobs boards even though the funding is no longer there for the position, leaving jobseekers to find out personally that the job they applied for no longer exists, or has been put on hold for a few months. 

But even institutions and states with a hiring freeze find ways to get round this; some posts are funded with external private endowments for example, even in public schools. Other posts regarded as ‘essential' are being allowed to go through to the hiring stage in some cases. Other departments have to check all of their hiring needs with the president of the college to get his or her approval. However, the issue of the hiring freezes is difficult to read. Few institutions are admitting openly what their policy actually is because they simply don't know how long the budget crisis will last. This means that rumours are flying and jobseekers are becoming more panicked than ever. 

Adjunct posts

Of course, colleges still have the same number of students to teach requiring the same level of commitment from their teachers. How is this going to happen in the face of the staffing crisis? Some people think that adjunct hiring (temporary and/or part time posts) will increase to compensate for the lack of new tenure track staff. This is a good thing for graduate students and those looking for temporary or part time work because of their own personal circumstances.

Those willing to be flexible and perhaps teach in several different departments (in other words, to have a portfolio career) can make a decent living in academia at the moment. You will also have to be prepared to teach things a well out of your area of specialism, but this is normal for adjuncts in the US anyway. The important thing is not to panic! There is no point worrying about international global crises and the impact on your department's hiring policy if you are not doing the simple things to try to improve your chances of getting a job. Make sure you are constantly CV building by improving your publication record or attending conferences. Keep working on your application packet so that when that ideal job does come along, you are ready to go.

Tenure Track: is there hope?

For those people who are looking for permanent tenure track positions, the times are very tough indeed, but hiring freezes have taken place before and the reports on this one are mixed. Some people are finding themselves blocked out of every opportunity they are applying for, others are constantly turning up exceptions to the ‘freezing' rule. So keep trying, but bear in mind that you may have to be more flexible than usual. Perhaps consider applying for any attractive permanent job, as opposed to restricting yourself to certain types of colleges or certain regions of the country, for example.

Overseas Applicants

And how does this affect overseas jobseekers who want to work in the US? This isn't the best time to choose to move if you are hoping for a permanent job. You will be facing the same sorts of crises and worries over hiring freezes as the local US citizens. However, if you are looking for temporary work, such as visiting professorships or research scholarships, then it is a different matter. Hiring issues in those cases will develop on a case-by-case basis. Please be aware that just because an advert has been posted and appears to be live, the money for the job or research position may be withdrawn at the last minute.

Although this all sounds rather depressing, the situation can change very quickly, so it's important to keep positive and be prepared in your jobseeking. Don't feel as though you have no chance whatsoever of getting a job in the States this year, because that simply isn't the case. The importance of maintaining personal contacts in institutions you want to work for is higher than ever, as these are the contacts who can give you inside information on the prospects of getting a job. So, if nothing else seems to be working at the moment, then network like mad!

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