We welcome a guest post from Katrinell M. Davis, author of Hard Work Is Not Enough: Gender and Racial Inequality in an Urban Workspace. Drawing on archival material and interviews with African American women transit workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Davis grapples with our understanding of mobility as it intersects with race and gender in the postindustrial and post–Civil Rights United States. Considering the consequences of declining working conditions within the public transit workplace of Alameda County, Davis illustrates how worker experience—on and off the job—has been undermined by workplace norms and administrative practices designed to address flagging worker commitment and morale. Providing a comprehensive account of how political, social, and economic factors work together to shape the culture of opportunity in a postindustrial workplace, she shows how government manpower policies, administrative policies, and drastic shifts in unionization have influenced the prospects of low-skilled workers.
In today’s post, she discusses the precarity of employment among highly educated workers—scholars. Wasn’t more education supposed to increase employability?
Whether graduate programs are theory based or applied in nature, these programs function to reproduce the next generation of professors. Back when I started graduate school in the late 1990s, most of us assumed that our journeys would resemble our advisors’ or other mentors’ journeys in the field. So we paid close attention to how they managed department politics. We would take note of how they engaged students during office hours. We watched them prepare teaching assistants charged with leading discussion and review sessions. We even allowed ourselves to imagine how we would personalize our office and where we might place our plants, quirky travel trinkets, and posters of choice.
Professors in training, particularly prior to the Great Recession, never imagined long stretches of unemployment after proving their mastery of skill and commitment to their discipline. They did not see themselves entering the job market as an “adjunct” professor or having to apply for “professional lecturer” or “non-tenure” positions that did not come with job security or a decent wage. They didn’t see themselves meeting a long line of students during mid-terms at Starbucks and being asked to leave by an audacious employee who is attempting to make room for paying customers. They didn’t see themselves regularly teaching classes with over 100 students with no course support in the form of assigned readers or teaching assistants. They didn’t know that, despite several years of dedicated service as an overworked but underpaid adjunct professor, they would be overlooked for the tenure-track position when a tenure line for the department became available. They did not see themselves needing the food stamps for which they qualify, despite long days of work. They just didn’t know. They didn’t know that they had been, as Malcolm X once told African Americans, “Hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray!”
Just as we can see in other occupations, employment opportunities in higher education have changed for the worse. As tuition increases and funding continues to be funneled into administrative salaries and initiatives, less and less investment has been allocated to tenure-track faculty positions. Given these trends, while only 25 percent of university faculty were contingent in 1975, as of 2012, 75 percent of university faculty consisted of instructional staff considered contingent faculty. As a result, instead of working to earn tenure after securing their first job, many university faculty are forced to manage various courses at multiple universities in order to make ends meet.
Clear reasons for this shift have not emerged. But a few things are clear. While education might be the key to success, it doesn’t provide the boost it once provided to American workers. With millions of workers counting on their externship to roll into a full-time job offer or their training to lead to a path of job stability, many are finding that there is no pot of wage increases and stock options at the end of the rainbow. No desk. No glory. And in many cases, no consistent employment. In turn, many college graduates—just like the social and hard science professionals exiting graduate school—end up spending several years after securing their training living at home with mom and dad in hopes of saving money, only to find themselves stuck with a part-time or dead-end job, mounting work pressures, student loan debt, and dreams deferred.
Katrinell Davis is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Vermont. Her book Hard Work Is Not Enough: Gender and Racial Inequality in an Urban Workspace is now available.