College Matters | The importance of a highly skilled workforce

This article was originally posted in the College Matters column of the Times-Standard.

Thursday, August 4, 2022 - 1:30pm

The modern-day university is much more than a place where students come to earn degrees. It is an important place of employment for many people.

A campus staff member long ago provided some advice to a young student who was wondering what to do after they finished their business degree. That staff member suggested considering a career in higher education. The young student looked confused, thinking a university wasn’t a business. What jobs are there at a college? Could they even make a living? The student thought that a campus only had professors, and this student wanted to run a business.

What that student didn’t know, and what the staff member explained, was that a university is filled with all types of jobs. A university has trainers, nurses, health navigators, physicians, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, accountants, bookkeepers, police officers, parking attendants, custodians, groundskeepers, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, marketing professionals, architects, environmental planners, government relations coordinators, community relations coordinators, tribal relations coordinators, activities coordinators, food service workers, chefs, bookstore personnel, advisors, administrative assistants, athletic coaches, student development specialists, media specialists, news writers, videographers, compliance officers, attorneys, business development coordinators, and many different types of faculty. For every academic discipline, there is someone to teach or administer that program. This workforce is both full and part-time.

Students and their families regularly visit campuses throughout the year. Interestingly, their first impressions are the buildings and other infrastructure, campus beauty, parking, and signage. The first people they come in contact with are when they are seeking directions. Most often the first person they encounter is someone from the grounds crew. Our entire workforce, and their skill in interacting on a personal level, is very important.

Cal Poly Humboldt is a people-centered organization, and higher education as an industry is built on the daily interactions and shared learning among individuals. The people we are able to hire — and retain — determine the quality and type of experience we are able to provide students.

Today every university is facing challenges with the retention of personnel. At Cal Poly Humboldt, similar to other major employers in the county, we face difficulties recruiting in a national market to find qualified individuals who will need to move to Humboldt County.

What often is not understood is Cal Poly Humboldt is both a destination and a stepping stone as an employer. Comparing full-time teaching faculty to full-time professional staff is a helpful example:

• In one area, you have a new assistant professor, one who has not earned tenure and may have recently graduated from graduate school, who accepts a position to teach at Humboldt. Over the next 5-7 years they teach, conduct scholarship activities, and provide service to the campus as part of the process to be promoted. If they are so fortunate they will be promoted to associate professor. This promotion comes with more pay and, in all likelihood, tenure. For a few more years they will continue what they have been doing in hopes they will be ultimately promoted to (full) professor. This carries more pay and greater status on campus. An academic department may have anywhere from 1-10 positions, meaning all could be full professors eventually within that department.

• In contrast, on the professional staff side of campus, there is a shared bit of wisdom: “To move up one must move out.” As a staff member, there is only one department leader. That is generally the director. If one is a coordinator or assistant director but wants to become the director one day, they must gain the experience and the academic credentials in order to be considered for that ONE position. That staff member could wait and hopefully be selected for that position when it becomes available, or depart the university and seek that position at another campus. In other words, for some staff to be promoted or to earn a greater salary, they often must take a new position at another university. They move out, to move up. This is very common.

As many already know, the cost of relocating to this region and affording a home are costly. Homeownership and the cost of living are the biggest reasons people leave the area and accept employment elsewhere.

Someone might make the argument that campuses should just have more positions or pay people more. Every business owner knows it is more complicated. On campus, there are structures for types of positions, unions, and other standards that determine employment status. Plus, nearly 90% of the operational resources a campus has is already spent on employees. That leaves very little to repair facilities, build buildings, and modernize the infrastructure.

There are many reasons for Cal Poly Humboldt’s challenges in recruiting and retaining employees. But all of us benefit when we are successful. That’s because for any region, such as the North Coast, having both a four-year and two-year college in the community is an incredible economic influencer. Every employee uses their salary for living expenses spent in the county. Eureka is the biggest benefactor because of housing and shopping options. McKinleyville is next.

Many of our new employees are moving here from elsewhere, and I hope you will join us in welcoming them and helping them feel at home. This is a small community, and more so than large urban areas, we depend on one another, talk about one another, and look out for one another. On this front, I am extremely grateful to Mayor Susan Seaman of Eureka and Mayor Stacy Atkins-Salazar of Arcata. Among other things, they are helping create a welcome event in early September for new employees at Cal Poly Humboldt and other organizations such as College of the Redwoods.

That young student long ago didn’t realize at the time they would be leading a campus, yet alone writing a bi-weekly column for the community. The modern-day university has a great deal to offer. Have you considered a career in higher education? Be well.

Dr. Tom Jackson Jr. is the president of Cal Poly Humboldt.