How working at a community college is like working retail

Expectations are a pain in the ass. There’s an old saying, “plant an expectation, reap a disappointment.” Yep I did it, planted and am now disappointed. I teach Sociology at a rural community college; I love teaching, but I don’t love that adjunct teachers like me are temporary, at-will employees.

Who knew that the working conditions at a community college would be the same as they were when I was a bookseller, housekeeper, caregiver, fast food worker, and waitress? How did I wind up with the part-time shift again, scrambling for hours (classes) so I can keep up with the fuckin’ bills?

Go ahead call me naïve, I was. I was warned by my profs in my grad program about the local community college, “they never keep the good people,” one of them said. “That’s the ultimate system of social reproduction,” said another. I liked the “good people” comment and was determined to be a “keeper.” Naïve me, I assumed that education was going to be a different sort of work environment, that it would be more fair and equitable than the crappy low-wage service jobs of my uneducated past. It’s hard not to laugh at me cynically and with sadness; perhaps some understanding as you read this. Now I know the labor practices at a community college don’t differ much from what they were at Barnes and Noble–my last job before entering the elite world of the professional middle class.

To illustrate it’s important to note that labor costs comprise the biggest chunk of a business’s expenses; a community college is the same, the fewer benefits and salaried hours paid out the better. In California, adjunct faculty earn about 56 cents on the dollar of a full-time faculty, don’t have benefits, and don’t take up a lot of space except for the classrooms where they do their work; more adjuncts = massive salary savings. Moreover, limited access to resources creates competition, fear, and resentment among employees very similar to what I observed about the divisions amongst the retail employees that worked either full or part time at Barnes and Noble.

This division benefits the community college (and business) because conflict among the ranks prevents employees from noticing their exploitation. In an academic workplace adjunct faculty manage an inconsistent status, having power and authority in the classroom the same as their tenured peers while also aware that they lack benefits and are working out of their cars instead of offices. This is where labor practices differ. At Barnes and Noble a low-ranked bookseller with limited responsibilities got paid accordingly; at the community college however, all of us faculty share the same level of responsibilities, but 70% of us are paid a pittance in comparison to our tenured peers. Adjuncts are a secret working poor (we know but students and non-academics do not), and we earn anywhere from $13,000-25,000 a year (and that’s an estimate, many earn less and few earn much more). In my last year at Barnes and Noble I earned $23,000.

The common piece of these not-so-different work environments is the fact that we serve “customers.” Faculty dislike being asked to call our students customers, but its part of the new business-tinted lingo of the community college, one that sees students as consumers of a service. It makes me feel like I should thank them for “stopping by” during office hours or tell them to “have a nice day” when they leave class. These days, receiving professional development trainings in customer service skills is the sort of silly bullshit that proliferates at institutions like mine. They (the students) aren’t fooled and neither are we (the faculty). It feels phony just like it does at Christmas when an exhausted clerk wishes you “happy holidays” because their manager gave them a script that they are required to follow.

The inequity itches at me, I went back to school to get away from these types of labor practices. Teaching at a community college is cool, but the working conditions should make anyone think twice. I have no regrets, but I also have the privilege of no regrets; I don’t have children or a mortgage – and besides, I’m used to this.


Julie Garza-Withers is an award-winning community college sociology instructor and organizational diversity consultant who works with individuals and groups to facilitate collaborative solutions to gender, race, and class-based conflicts.

6 Responses

  1. Melanie

    Strong opinions. Would love to see research–fiscal and academic, on why community colleges use so many adjuncts–to support these arguments. CC’s are not-for-profit, and may have limitations on funding. I attended community college, and worked at one as an administrator and now on the academic side as a counselor and never heard students referred to as “customers.” Community Colleges are not the only schools who utilize adjunct faculty either, and adjuncts are, as a rule, paid lower than tenured there as well. A plus to teaching in the community college system is they will hire teachers with only a master’s degree (as opposed to doctoral) and do not require ongoing research and publishing as most 4-year schools do.

  2. Julie Garza-Withers

    I love it when another woman comes at me about “strong opinions,” that’s what a blog is for! Based on your experience, I believe you. But your experiences are your own and mine are mine. Whether you have heard about it or not does not negate the existence of a thing, it means you haven’t heard of it. I’m reminded of this when I speak to white people about racism on college campuses, “well, I never had that experience…” btw, there is a plethora of research about California Community Colleges and the “adjunct problem,” do some research.

    Gotta love those red herrings.

    1. People like Melanie don not even see corporatizaion, perhaps because they are lucky enough to be in a privileged position rather than the position of precariat. thanks, Julie, for your honest post. keep speaking truth.

  3. Marketta

    I am in my final year of grad school (MSW) and about to do my last field placement at a CC. This was my choice because I am interested in teaching at a CC or other College in the near future. Can anyone offer some insights on how “to get in”?

  4. L B

    What you have shared here is very interesting and eye-opening. Although I am not a college educated person, I do have skills. While perusing the job offerings at a new college, which will soon be opening in my area, I see that the classified job offerings are pretty pathetic as far as hours and pay go. They are just barely over minimum wage and less than 20 hours a week. I was naively thinking that perhaps one of these barely over minimum wage jobs might work into something more permanent with better pay. However, your post gives me great pause. I think I will skip applying, unless I see something more adequate and worthwhile posted. It’s not worth the $150.00 gross weekly earnings to drive 44 to 50 miles round trip daily for 3 or more days a week.

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