John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

“Find A Good Company and Stick With It”: What Advice Do We Give Our Students These Days?

December 16, 2013John N. GardnerInsights1

John N. Gardner
President

That was the advice my father gave me repeatedly growing up. That’s what he did and it sure worked well for him. He spent 43 years of his 74 year life working for one good, large company. He seemed happy and fulfilled, as far as I could tell. And his life in the corporate salt mine brought me many privileges and advantages. I know my father truly loved his company for it was the era of a social contract between corporation and especially its most loyal executives. Those days are dead. Now, rampant, international capitalism reigns supreme and without a soul. What brings on this rant from this higher education blogger?

Today I learned that a good friend of mine has just become a casualty of a large corporate layoff. I was absolutely crushed when I learned this. I could never have imagined this man would be let go. It would have been my assumption that any company would have found a way somehow to keep him. He loved his company, I know he did—it had been his for many years over three decades in the same industry. He always spoke well of it, so well that at times I felt this was too good to be true—and it ultimately became just that. He would reference proudly its humane culture in distinction to peer employers. He was the best at what he did of any employee in his peer group that I have ever seen. He was honest, loyal, conscientious, patient, considerate, ethical, collegial, friendly, cheerful, positive and upbeat, helpful, always focused on what was best for the customer. I am just shocked. But his industry was/is experiencing rapid and disruptive change. The company had to become leaner, consolidate. We all know the mantra, all too well. And there is truth in it. He had become expendable, redundant. He didn’t get the deal my father got, nor me.

I have been fortunate to live through the halcyon days of higher education. I received tenure at age 32 and by age 37 was a tenured full professor. I had professional freedom and security unimaginable in just about any other occupation. But today colleges and universities are drastically reducing the number of professors to whom they extend the kind of freedom and security they did to me. Universities are abandoning their paternalistic and “family” like cultures and have become corporatized. Increasingly, it is harder and harder to differentiate the cultures, policies and practices of the academy from the rest of corporate America. This saddens me, but I understand.

I suspect that my friend received the same advice from his father (or mother) that I received from mine: “Work hard son. Do your best. Honor your employer always. Be honest. Treat the Company’s property as your own. Keep your bosses informed. Volunteer for extra work…” This wasn’t enough. It didn’t take account the factors in the world that we don’t control. I know he practiced all the tenets of that line of sage counsel.

So what counsel do you give your students these days?

I had those tapes drilled into my head. And I put all of them into practice, and more, on my first job in the academy and then all the rest of my positions. But in my first one, it wasn’t enough either. I was a young, non-tenure track, “temporary” instructor of history, at least full time. I had finished my first year. My students loved me. I loved them. I received outstanding teaching reviews. My departmental colleagues enjoyed and respected me. I was given additional responsibilities. I tried to do everything my father had taught me.

But early in my second year, I violated an unwritten rule that I had not known about and committed a gross faux pas. In my ignorant bliss one day in class at a regional, public, southern, single gender college, I recommended that my students see a movie made by the American Civil Liberties Union (the year was 1969). The movie was about the Chicago police riot that had taken place the year before at the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago. Unbeknownst to me, in my class of 350 students, there sat the daughter of the institution’s board of trustees. And Daddy had been sued by a group of his black workers represented by a cooperating ACLU attorney. So the mere mention of “ACLU” was a red flag. This was reported to Daddy. Daddy called the institution’s President, and ten days later or so I was issued a letter of non-reappointment. As an untenured, temporary faculty member on a one-year appointment, I had no rights. I was toast.

I remember the largely inwardly directed feelings of anger, betrayal, disappointment that I experienced over the following months. I couldn’t understand the justice of this. I had done everything my father had taught me. But it wasn’t enough. In retrospect, I did a very wise thing and just moved on quietly. And that is how I came to the University of South Carolina (USC) where I again practiced everything my father taught me, but this time committed no unwritten political transgressions and ultimately received the ultimate life employment security of tenure. There was never any hope of tenure for my friend and there never will be.  But I actually think he loved his company as much as I loved mine (USC), and so believed that he was playing by all the rules of the Book of Employee Virtue that this could never happen to him. I still can’t believe it either.

So, given the realities of the economic forces shaping the employment contexts for all our students, what can we tell them about possible routes to employment security? Or is that something so unrealistic that none of them should even aspire to? Just what can they count on as they move on in life after college? Their family, loved ones, closest friends? What else? Certainly not a government funded social safety net.

Of course, our own lives give us some answers for life’s most important questions. So I examine my own life in relation to employment security and have the following advice for my students, based on what I did. What did I do? I stayed focused for over four decades of a work life on a pressing societal need (undergraduate college student success and retention). I became a true expert on something that had vast commercial, marketplace value. I had knowledge and skills on a subject that is of concern, and therefore has employment value in multiple sectors of the economy: in higher education settings, in companies that sell to higher education, in government agencies that regulate higher education, in non-profit firms that advise higher education. My knowledge and skills then became highly transferable, portable, adaptable. The aspiration for any full professor in any real research university (like the one I was so privileged to work for) is to ultimately know more about some subject, one subject/issue/problem, than anyone else in the world. Now some who know my work could easily debate whether or not I ever attained that status. But I at least came close to it and as long as my health and interest would permit, would never go without employment opportunities to utilize that knowledge and skill set.

So back to our students. I think we have to urge them to stay so focused on something they are passionate about; learn as much as they humanly can about some subject that has broad commercial utility and marketplace needs; focus on acquisition of universally transferable skills and knowledge, that no matter what happens to any one “job” they have, they can also move to another—or, simply be a free agent, self employed, offering your knowledge, total expertise, to an unending series of clients who seek you out for what you uniquely can provide, know and do, and what your empirically verifiable record shows you have done.

As I reflect on my father’s advice, “Find a good company and stick with it”, I realize that is what I ended up doing. My “company” was the University of South Carolina. But as a result of doing that I accumulated a body of expertise that has marketable employment value that I would never have to have one employer again. I know this is a replicable model. So in effect we have to tell our students to pursue something that will give them unique knowledge and skills to the point where they could be self-employed if they wished, and always in demand, again, if they wished. I believe that the new knowledge based economy, coupled with the technologically based communications revolution, makes that potential realistic for many of our students.

So, if you aren’t going to tell them to find a good company and stick with it, what are you going to tell them?

One Comment

  1. Darlena JonesJanuary 3, 2014 at 8:49 amReply

    I’m so sorry for your friend. Great advice for all students.

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