Staffing agencies are a familiar feature of most labor markets, but not in the rarified precincts of the academy. That may be changing: Community colleges in Michigan have started to outsource the hiring and “on-boarding” of adjuncts to an educational staffing company, reports Inside Higher Ed.The faculty union at one school is none too happy, protesting that the move undermines the colleges’ educational goals. The change is also saving the schools a fair bit of cash: about $250,000 in the first year alone, according to North Central Michigan College.Kirtland College hit on the idea of outsourcing adjunct hiring in 2009 in order to avoid contributing to the state’s retirement fund on behalf of adjuncts:
The idea, in part, was to skirt Michigan’s comparatively high mandatory employer contribution (then nearly 17 percent of payroll, and now even greater) to the state’s retirement fund; private employers, such as EDUStaff, don’t have to contribute to the fund—even if their employees are working at public colleges. (The state also requires a smaller percentage contribution from individual employees of public institutions.) Kirtland said that many adjuncts don’t stay around long enough or work enough hours to ever draw from the retirement fund anyway, but the plan proved controversial and was temporarily put on hold.
The arrangement suits the adjuncts as well, according to one college:
“EduStaff certainly does help from an administrative standpoint, as we have over 600 adjuncts on record,” [vice president of administration and human resources at Jackson College Cynthia] Allen said via email. “As well, many of our adjuncts are working for the money and don’t work enough hours to get vested in the retirement system. These individuals would love more pay and can now put money in their own 401K.”
Given how much tenure-track faculty dislike the idea, we might expect adjuncts who sign on with a staffing agency to suffer backlash. While that may keep some untenured profs from joining, especially those who hope to work at prestigious institutions, the staffing firm seems reasonably attractive for a workforce accustomed to low pay and few opportunities for advancement. For an adjunct facing dim prospects of ever moving to the tenure track, having greater access to opportunities all over the country might sound like a plus—as might the 401K offer.As college enrollment declines along with state support for schools, it’s certainly possible that more colleges will be tempted to cut expenses in similar ways. It’s also hard to see why outsourcing the hiring of adjuncts would be particularly damaging to academic departments. The close-knit department ideal has already been undermined by higher education’s new two-tiered hierarchy, in which a small number of faculty are protected and cosseted while a large number of adjuncts work long hours for low pay and few if any benefits.