Can Unions Save Adjuncts?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Last week, I wrote that collectively, faculty need to deal with the terrible market for professorships by producing fewer potential professors: admitting a lot fewer students to graduate school. Graduate school doesn't exploit students the way that, say, a third-tier law school program does -- the students are paid, not paying vast sums for degrees they can't use. But by wildly overproducing graduate students, academia is doing something just as bad, in a different way: encouraging overoptimistic (OK, maybe arrogant) kids to spend their formative years in the labor market pursuing jobs they aren't so likely to get, then hiring the excess students as essentially casual labor at low wages.

There are two criticisms I've received that seem worth responding to. The first is that I myself work in a profession that looks a lot like a tournament: a lucky few at the top, and a lot of hopefuls who don't make it. That's absolutely true. But I don't encourage young people to seek jobs in the profession; I tell them the math is terrible and getting worse, and they should do something else. The economics of the industry are very bad, unless you are lucky enough to work for a place like Bloomberg News, which doesn't depend on advertising. I certainly don't get paid to train them for journalism jobs that they probably won't get.

That said, most people don't spend five or six or eight years just preparing to be eligible to get a job in journalism, and an additional four years or so cycling through post-docs before it becomes clear that that journalism job isn't going to happen. Nor, when they are six years into their first permanent job, do they have a committee that meets to decide whether to fire them and put them back on the job market, quite possibly with very poor prospects. They don't have to move to towns in the middle of nowhere or give up relationships because their partners will never be able to find work in the Ozarks. Female journalists do not have to put off starting a family until they're pushing 40 because it would be insane to reproduce before the tenure committee approves them. The opportunity costs of trying to become a journalist are quite a bit lower than the opportunity costs of trying to become an academic.

One question worth addressing is: Why not unions? Why not unionize the adjuncts and get them paid on par with the tenure-track professors? Better yet, why not convert all those positions to tenure-track lines?

I have my issues with tenure, which I've written about elsewhere. But I don't see this as a realistic solution to the problem. When there is an enormous glut of labor, most of that labor will not be paid much. Unions in Hollywood and the theater have somewhat increased the wages that bit players get when they are in union shows. But it's debatable whether unions have improved the income of bit players overall. And they certainly have not prevented the problem I was addressing: hopeful young people who burn a decade or more of their lives trying to get one of a handful of the stable, well-paid slots for actors, directors, screenwriters and so forth.

I can't think of any way to keep people from wanting to be actors, or journalists, or professors. These are terrific jobs that a lot of people will always want. And because I am lucky enough to have one of these amazing jobs, I can attest that it is indeed amazing. I wish you could all have a job that was equally great.

But I can think of a way to keep fewer young people from burning a decade trying to get one of these jobs, which is to push the competition back to the graduate school application phase, rather than making them compete for a shrinking number of tenure-track jobs. Medical training is also a grueling process that takes the better part of a decade to complete (and it's ruinously expensive, to boot!). But at the end, almost all of them have decent-paying jobs.

Obviously, that means cutting off some people who really would have blossomed in graduate school. But it also means rescuing lost decades for a lot of others. Alternatively, shorten the grad school process and stop requiring massive dissertations that take years to conceive and execute. Set deadlines. Institute hard exit points every few years, the way consulting and investment banking do. But for heaven's sake, do something so that people don't find themselves at the age of 35 having to start over when their peers have spent more than a decade building families and careers.

My suggestion is that graduate programs should admit students in rough relation to how many jobs there are -- not one for one, but a number that means that most people who make it all the way through the process will be able to get a decent-paying job in academia or a research lab. That does not seem to be what is happening today in many fields. And while folks with quant degrees have other places where the skills they have acquired will pay handsomely, folks in non-quant areas are often in a bad way when they have to start over.

An anecdote: I once listened to the chief executive officer of a casino do an earnings call in which he talked a lot about its focus on developing, retaining and monetizing "avid gamblers." Listening further, it seemed rather as if "avid gambler" was a euphemism for "people who have a quite serious gambling problem." That would certainly be in line with other vice industries such as cigarettes and alcohol, in which most of the consumption is done by a small minority of very heavy users who are often doing themselves fairly serious damage.

None of the analysts on the call asked what I thought was the obvious question: "Isn't it morally wrong to run a business to maximize compulsive gambling?"

Now, I don't think gambling should be illegal. I even enjoy playing small-stakes blackjack now and again. And I understand all the arguments that casino managers could make: If I don't do it, some other casino will just take their money, and they're adults, so who am I to judge? And still, I wouldn't get into the business of encouraging compulsive gamblers to dig themselves into a deeper hole.

To me, that is what faculty in programs with poor placement rates are doing. They aren't the only culprit: There's the administration, and the students themselves, who are at best naive and excessively optimistic. But they are part of the problem. And I have seen little evidence that they are trying to be part of the solution.

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