Venkata: On the employment contract, Pt. II

Contracting makes sense — until it doesn’t.

by Uma Venkata

If a homeowner renovates or builds a house, the very name of the career expert who is key to that job is “contractor.” Certain people specialize in carpentry, masonry, plumbing, roofing and painting, among others. And the nature of those projects is fleeting. If the carpenter is good, his job is done in less time rather than in more.

That makes sense, but contracting has spread to areas where work had traditionally been full-time — like University of Minnesota faculty. 

A house is a tangibly finite item, so projects are short. An effectively infinite supply of other houses will be enough to make up a steady career for building contractors. Contracting is the right choice in industries where projects are fleeting in nature. But for work that requires time commitment and a long-term familiarity with the operation of the company in order to achieve consistency in the delivered product, it makes sense to employ someone who is able to commit to that. That requires time, and though this sounds like a long shot, it also requires a certain peace of mind.

It’s hard to work when you’re distracted. Indeed, I said I was writing about contracting, so my roommate put on This Old House — this modern Scandinavian renovation is truly fascinating. It’s even harder when your distraction, rather than house envy, is actual stress. If you’re worried about a test, a job interview or really anything, I’m sure you’ll agree it can be hard to produce good work in good time. 

Imagine that was the case with your entire job — your main source of income. Say you work for a company that requires commitment and familiarity, but you’re a contractor. You want to produce good work, both for pride in your work and the benefit of your customers — and for the sake of keeping your job. But, if you can’t be sure whether you’ll keep your job, anxiety can compound.

At the University of Minnesota, faculty who are not tenured are generally contract. That contract is renewed on a yearly basis. That contract includes medical and dental benefits, and, of course, three months of vacation per year if they don’t do research over the summer. The University reserves the right to dismiss their contract faculty quite easily, including faculty with titles of lecturer, senior lecturer, assistant professor, professor and so on. The effect of this is that tenured faculty of a department generally work much less than the contract faculty of the same department. You can imagine that this is bothersome because we are human. Anxiety about job security, in a job that requires long-term consistency, aggravates those of our instructors who work contract. It is not unheard of for a full professor at the University to work more than one job during the school year.  

The Daily has reported on failed unionization and bargaining efforts by University faculty and staff. Faculty and graduate students are hurt by this marginalization, not to mention staff who work around the clock to keep the school clean and safe. This is the world of employment that we will inherit. It’s up to us to address it to our favor; it doesn’t hurt to know about it before the melee begins.