Why You Can't Find a Full-Time Job, Part 1

May 29, 2013

A few years ago, I wrote a column called "Why You Didn't Get the Job," aimed at rookie candidates who had failed to find full-time teaching positions at community colleges.

In my next two columns, I'd like to update and expand on that premise, focusing this time on people who have spent several years on the community-college market—teaching as adjuncts all the while—but have yet to find full-time jobs. Such apparent futility may have many explanations, but I've chosen 11 of the most common. Part 1 looks at five reasons that are probably beyond any one candidate's control but are still important to understand. Part 2 will explore six problems that you might actually be able to fix.

I need to issue a few disclaimers in advance.

  • I understand that many readers have already answered the question suggested by my title with what they consider the obvious response: The system is broken. You'll get no argument from me. But my purpose here is not to rail against an unjust or irrational system, or even to suggest sweeping reforms. I will leave those Herculean tasks to others, for now. (As some of you may recall, I took a stab at the "sweeping reforms" part last month, with mixed results.)
  • The advice in these two columns is primarily for people who are still hoping and attempting to procure a full-time teaching position at a community college—not for those who have essentially given up (that's a different topic).
  • Keep in mind that I'm talking about community-college jobs since that's the world I know well. Some of what I say might apply to four-year colleges, too, but I make no claims to that effect.
  • Finally, please note that I'm speaking primarily from an administrative point of view because I believe that's what readers need to understand: how administrators think when it comes to hiring faculty members. I'm not making excuses for a bad system. I'm not even "The Man" anymore, having left administration more than two years ago. I'm simply trying to explain how the system functions, or dysfunctions.

With that out of the way, let's explore five factors that are preventing many candidates from getting full-time jobs at community colleges. Other than becoming politically active in your state, you probably can't do much about any of these, but you should be aware of them.

Budget realities. Most states have significantly reduced the amount of money they spend on higher education. You may view that as reprehensible, but the fact remains: State budgets are tight these days, so college budgets are tight. And when community-college budgets are tight, administrators tend to scale back full-time hiring and rely more on part-time faculty members.

Simply put, even those two-year colleges that genuinely possess the internal will to create more full-time faculty lines (and, frankly, colleges in that category seem to be in the minority) lack the money to do so.

The numbers game. There's also a fairly simple mathematical equation at work here, one that renders calls for immediate "full employment" unrealistic.

Let's say that a particular college resolved to eliminate all part-time positions and move forward with only full-time, tenure-track faculty members. The hypothetical college had 25 adjuncts who had been teaching an average of three courses a semester. If all 25 positions were converted to full-time, on a two-year campus with a typical teaching load of five classes each semester, that would mean 10 of the 25 adjuncts would lose their jobs—and that's assuming all 15 of the new full-timers came from the ranks of the former adjuncts.

In other words, that college couldn't simply turn all 25 part-time jobs into 25 full-time positions. The unintended consequence of eliminating part-timers would be to put at least 10 people out of work and do away with anything resembling an entry-level position for faculty (since an adjunct job is about as close as most community colleges come to having an entry-level position now).

State politics. Tenure is under attack across the country and—as I argued a few years ago in "Tenure and the Two-Year College"—community colleges constitute something of a beachhead.

State lawmakers who believe in eliminating tenure at public institutions seem to have decided that two-year colleges are, politically speaking, a relatively safe place to start. Our colleges are not as high-profile as universities, we don't have big-time sports programs (or the boosters that go with them), and relatively few state legislators ever attended a two-year campus.

And since they can't simply revoke tenure for all community-college professors without instigating a rash of lawsuits, their long-term plan appears to be to allocate state funds in such a way as to encourage the hiring of more and more non-tenure-track instructors. Whatever you may think of that legislative strategy, it certainly helps explain why there aren't as many full-time positions available as might be expected, given the ever-expanding student population in many state community-college systems.

Campus politics. Some two-year colleges are quite open to considering adjuncts, including their own, for full-time openings. Other colleges, suffering from what some might describe as delusions of grandeur, don't want to hire part-timers at all for full-time slots, preferring to limit such searches to candidates who already have significant full-time experience.

Politics can play a role in individual searches, too. Search committees in most cases don't do the actual hiring but simply make recommendations. It's up to senior administrators on the organizational chart—deans or vice presidents—to extend job offers. Regardless of what a committee recommends, if the higher-ups have another agenda, there's not much anyone can do.

Personal biases. Finally, if any members of the search committee oppose hiring adjuncts in general—or hiring you in particular—then you're unlikely even to be invited for an interview, much less get the job.

In my experience, most community-college faculty members who serve on search committees have no problem considering adjuncts for a full-time opening. In fact, many full-timers at two-year colleges started out as adjuncts themselves.

But anyone who follows The Chronicle's blogs (particularly posts dealing with adjunct instructors) is already painfully aware that some full-time faculty members regard hiring adjuncts (especially of the "home-grown" variety) as "settling." Others fear that such a practice will lead over time to "academic inbreeding." That might sound ridiculous, but all it takes is one person who feels that way to sabotage your candidacy.

Next month's column will consider six other obstacles you might encounter on the community-college job market that you can actually overcome.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges." He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for "On Hiring." The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.