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  • Monday, May 11, 2020 7:36 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    2020 Annual General Meeting Notes - General Session

    Sunday, May 10, 2020; 1:00PM and 5:00PM, MST

    Notes from both sessions have been combined.

    Location: Zoom! First-ever Virtual Annual General Meeting brought to you by COVID-19

    Facilitated by: Molly Herber and NIA Board

    Notes taken by: Marissa Bieger

    Edited by: Marissa Bieger, Dave Durant

    Attendees: Molly Herber, Marissa Bieger, Dave Durant, Julia Pieper, Fabio Raimo de Oliveira, Summers Eatmon Williams, Caio Poletti, Drew Seitz, Terri Watson, Bryant Race, Elena Chin, Oscar Manguy, Maija Pukkila, Anna Goforth, Jake Milligan, Celine Jaccard, Jenny Tison, Nadine Lehner, Alan Coulter, Emily Stubbs, Jon Kempsey, Jerick Lee, Pedro Binfa, Inge Davids, Todd Bevans, Anna Bastidas, Adam Chenoweth, Lucy Braham, Miles Turner, David Valenzuela, Will Jahncke, Ben Urmston, Sean Williams, Aaron Divine, Sarah Davidson, Matt Leslie, Denani Schmitt, Will Wamaru, Peggy Guiney, Isidora Llarena, Pablo Cuadra, Leo Nava, Henry Haro

    These notes are a summary of topics discussed at a specific NIA meeting. They are meant to capture the “flavor” of the meeting and the content may be paraphrased. They do not represent the opinions of NOLS, participating faculty/staff or the NIA.

    I. Announcements
    • Introduction to Zoom features and request for consent to record meetings
    • Recognition of gratitude for new NIA members in last 30 days
    • NIA Board Member introductions
    • Changes to dues in response to COVID-19: All remaining auto-renewals for 2020 postponed to December 15th, 2020 and associate member dues reduced to $10 yearly or $100 one-time lifetime membership fee
    II. Introduction to the NIA: History, Role, and Function

    Faculty Representation

    • Presence at Board of Trustees meetings and brief overview of Living Wage Platform
    • Recent vote to represent all employees below B level in NIA

    Professional Community

    • Facebook group, new Instagram account (@nia.for.all), presence at NOLS locations

    Physical Improvements

    • Flamingo fund, highlighted recently completed NOLS Patagonia Sauna Project

    III. General Session with Terri Watson, NOLS President

    Terri Watson: With NOLS, I was first a full-time field instructor, then worked a mix of field and in-town. I originally became a WMI instructor for a “break from NOLS,” and then NOLS bought WMI. Long-term lifetime member of NIA and former NIA board member.

    Membership in the NIA is extremely important: numbers equal credibility and representation. The platform page from the NIA website is extremely helpful; it is important to have well-written and research positions available to view. I use these platforms to support my arguments to the NOLS Board of Trustees.

    Compensation can’t be solved year-by-year with whatever money is left. It needs to be a strategic goal, not just addressing needs in an incremental fashion. It will take some time and we need to work toward it consistently. 

    I’ll aim not to talk a lot at this meeting and prefer to answer your questions [references letter & video updates for more background].

    Molly Herber: Leaving COVID out of the picture, I would love to hear from you, your wants, current gaps and analysis of NOLS - what are your thoughts, visions, what you are excited for, what do you hope for NOLS to look like in 2 & 7 years?

    TW: Three overarching priorities: 

    • Much more unified NOLS: NOLS does a lot of things. I’d like to see a coherent whole, and a common vision so that students have a clear picture of all of their options, and instructors can easily navigate between working for different areas of school. Let’s reimagine how this works. Keep, train, and diversify a good employee rather than find a new person to fill holes. Meet the high standards we already have.
    • Information Systems overhaul: this makes all these other things possible. We need infrastructure to support students and instructors moving across all these programs.
    • Compensation: more than just the paycheck we pay to employees, this is tied to tuition. Tuition is high and prohibits some students from taking courses. Budget is 85-95% tuition-driven and we don’t want to raise tuition. Something’s gotta give: better use of philanthropy (currently 6% of budget, only 4% goes into scholarships). Tuition plus more efficiencies helps with compensation. Would love in 5-7 years for people to say “I make a fair wage.” Comparable to other organizations paying similar folks: highly skilled & highly talented people. We need to rethink who our comparables are. If we want people of such high caliber, which we do, we need to find a way to make it worth it for them.

    It is really hard to be inclusive in a dialogue with 1,100 people on payroll in a year. People outside HQ are hard to effectively communicate with. Even some of our locations are left out, other languages, other hemispheres. The hardest part of the job so far is effective communication and engagement. “I wish we could figure out how to better communicate as a school.”

    Elena Chin: How has the HQ-NIA collaboration been going? Seems like that's increased a lot since Terri's come onboard.

    TW: It’s gone really well. NIA/HQ relationship had been tense for a long time, what can we do to change that. Dave Durant & Summers Eatmon Williams attended the recent Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting in San Diego and made a written report submission. There is strong support in the BOT for compensation changes and NIA attendance at each BOT meeting. A portion of the Board are still awkward about it, but a majority are in support. We need to figure out how to have good dialogues: instructors are the face of our school, the face to our students. There is a spirit of collaboration; “I’m pretty happy.”

    Oscar Manguy & Maija Pukkila: Terri, a question from us in Scandinavia: What is the best way to influence and provide input to the next strategic plan?

    TW: I want to figure this out as we get back to working on a new plan. Most of the input on the current plan was at in-person convenings. While inclusive, it eliminates a lot of people. I want to use more tools like Zoom so accessibility is not the issue. It needs to be structured well and use distance tools. Due to the nature of field work and email access, I have learned that email responses can take up to 2 months. We need to build this into planning how to get input for the next strategic plan. 

    Anna Goforth & Jake Milligan: Traditionally if there is a two year gap in an instructor working a course, then NOLS may require that person to retake an Instructor Course before they may lead another course. For example, I took my instructor course in Spring of 2019 and have yet to work a course, though I am scheduled for one in July of 2020. If this course is cancelled and I am unable to work a course before Spring of 2021, I will meet that 2 year gap. Are there conversations around a grace period or priority for those instructors to ensure they work a course in that two year period to maintain instructor status?

    TW: This type of question hasn’t come up yet in dialogue. What has come up, is that if we say we need someone who hasn’t worked in a while with qualifications, is there an easier way to get them back into the system than another IC. We’ve discussed an apprentice role or other paths that have been used in the past. 

    Celine Jaccard: Terri, I am wondering if there are measures currently being taken to find ways to support international staff who live in a country that doesn't provide them unemployment or other support through COVID. In particular long-term in-town staff and instructors abroad.

    TW: We’ve realized we know very little to nothing about this. We asked Program Directors in each area to find out where we have people who will be left out in the cold. Some countries do a great job taking care of workers, some just don’t. Board members have specifically asked “how can we help our international people?” This highlights one of the things I would love to solve at NOLS. We depend on Program Managers to be local experts on legal work issues. We need to have an HQ, central knowledge of this. It is a topic of conversation, but I don’t know what the solutions look like.

    Elena Chin: Speaking of price, how have NOLS student course prices changed over time (when adjusted for inflation)? Are they getting cheaper, more expensive, staying about the same?

    TW: Prices tend to go up. They’ve never gone down. For the last 15-18 years, in February the BOT approves what happens to tuition (stay the same or increase). It usually goes up with a rate that is supposed to match inflation. The guidance this year was increasing tuition 1-1.2% based on the US economy. Marketing then takes a general amount and applies it with discretion to each particular course. Since we are tuition-driven, compensation goes along with this. If we choose to raise compensation more, we have to figure out how to make that difference. 

    How do our course products compare to other choices our students could make? If you’re taking an outdoor course at your university, your existing financial aid applies automatically. It is really hard to transfer this to a NOLS course. Tuition is adjusted to try to drive demand in a direction (less popular semester is less expensive, example given was Southwest vs. Patagonia, which is more expensive). We need to make things more affordable but also find ways to run shorter courses without making them more expensive. When we can open up again, will our students be able to afford our courses?

    Jenny Tison/Nadine Lehner: How can instructors help the school at this time?

    TW: In normal times, I would say anything that supports enrollment, because that was our challenge. Right now, it’s hard to know. We’re trying to figure out what will allow us to run courses again. If you are aware of an organization that looks like NOLS and is able to use practices letting them run, talk to NOLS. We could use real world information on folks having success running courses that look like NOLS. Right now we have a task force of 10 people addressing the following: what would it take for us to run courses, both field and classroom? What would we be teaching and where? What are the appropriate mitigation strategies? 

    One of the strongest recommendations was to wait on a decision about July courses (instead of deciding on May 11). This decision is now waiting until May 28. If we run, it would most likely be domestic courses only and in skill sets that allow for appropriate mitigation efforts. 

    Aaron Divine: Are there any bigger plans or collaborations with other organizations or schools outside of NOLS such as Outward Bound or WEA for a “down the road” re-entry to field courses? Is there conversation happening between bigger groups?

    TW: We speak with the Colorado Outward Bound School director and “OB crowd” weekly, among others, to cross-check discussions against each other. We don’t want to come to different conclusions without checking with each other. We also talk with camps like Chewonki, Deer Hill, Moon Dance and Adventure Collection, a larger group representing high-end/luxury outdoor tourism (e.g. National Geographic, Canadian Mountain Helicopters) to get a sense of where they are coming from. At least bi-weekly, if not weekly, there are huge amounts of information sharing. Everyone is showing all their cards in this situation, without fear of losing market share to competitors. There’s been talk of coming together to issue a statement or op-ed at some point. 

    Sarah Davidson: Can you talk a bit about how NOLS is talking about COVID risk management re: travel (specifically, many of us and out students travel from disparate places to take part in courses)… e.g. would a course quarantine in the field if someone came down with COVID? How would communal meals at the Noble be handled? What protocol will be put in place to protect us as instructors being in close contact with students and coworkers from all over the country/world?

    TW: This fits into a much bigger answer. Two and a half weeks ago, we put together a COVID taskforce meant to draft a process to figure out what we use to decide to start courses in the US and internationally, field and classroom. How would that inform us for the July 1 decision? Identify practices that would need to be implemented before a decision was made. How would it be trained, normalized, carried out practically, and what do you do “if.” So far the answers look like picking a course type where you aren’t in really close quarters with students sharing equipment (e.g. not multipitch climbing with shared belay stations, whitewater would also be challenging). Backpacking lends itself well, sea kayaking could lend itself well. Once you’re on the course how do you mitigate, how do you get to and from the field, what about location prep, what about travel to and from the location. Do we stick with instructors closer to course locations? Tons of questions and not tons of answers. Trying to employ social distancing, cleaning items, not handling items without disinfecting, PPE especially with wilderness medicine. We might need to put together a group of people to test these ideas; some of them seem pretty hard to implement. We need to have clear, concrete answers before we start to run courses.

    Matt Leslie: What is admissions hearing right now? Are people still inquiring about our courses (Summer/Fall, etc.)? Or is it pretty quiet on that front?

    Denani Schmitt: Add-on to Matt’s question: What are you hearing from students who are signed up for July/later courses. Have student’s called out of courses, are they contacting you wanting to continue etc?

    TW: I don’t think demand’s going to be our problem. Applications per day fell off a cliff for a while, now they’re within 10% of normal. Most are for month-long courses and semesters: how cool, new demand we haven’t seen in a while. Fall semesters are only down 11%. People fall into three buckets: please don’t cancel my course; I’m going to hang on but I can’t fathom how you’re going to run my course; we want to come, but we want to know how it can be safe. We’ve been trying strategies to keep people on rosters, but as tuition comes due 30 days prior to start, people need to make decisions. There is concern about ability to run a course with appropriate risk mitigation within operational constraints and public perception (e.g. there was a community cry about NOLS bringing COVID to Lander). Once we start running courses we need to figure out how that fits. 

    Will Wamaru: Sounds like financial sustainability is critical to the decisions, is it the case that NOLS did not have a strong run rate/months of cash? If this is not the only consideration, other than tuition, what else are you considering? (how are NOLS reserves doing, why are we receiving gain share if we don’t have excess)

    TW: Before the pandemic we had reserves planned for NOLS to continue 3-5 months with a downturn of enrollment. It wasn’t designed for revenue to go to zero. At this rate, cash reserves will run out at the end of October or early November. Most of the endowment is designated for other uses. Part of the endowment was slotted to be used to improve compensation; that is now what we have left to run on. Layoffs and operational efficiencies are designed to make these reserves last until next summer. There is a chance we here we may not be operating until next summer. The next layoffs, if we have to make them, will be more incremental. We’re 90% revenue driven. We essentially have no income, how do we make that money last? How do we generate more income? Ex: using Canvas online learning system to try to offer something for wilderness medicine.

    WW: [Thanks TW for taking a pay cut]

    TW: The executive team will get their pay back once we start making money again for a period of time; pay cuts motivate figuring it out.

    Peggy Guiney: Any possibility of testing students and instructors prior to a course?

    TW: There are many challenges to testing, including reliability and availability. [Names public health officers and doctors NOLS is in contact with]. They told us we can’t recommend testing until it becomes more practical and reliable; it’s not a guarantee of immunity right now. We have to run as if we think everybody is infected, which makes it harder.  

    Online submission: What are possible solutions to job security in the future? E.g. changing WRAP system, seasonal employment.

    TW: Some of these systems already exist: AFP and sal-fac, including 50/50 wilderness medicine and field work AFP positions. These were created in good faith to try to provide stability. There are challenges around those programs. One of the challenges being discussed before COVID was how do we change the staffing model; there is a lack of solidity in knowing whether we have work or not, and in the staffing office, they are constantly trying to fill needs. This is not working well for either group. How do we change it? What do instructors need and what does staffing need? In different industries or organizations, you can have different categories of people, e.g. summer-only, or off-season with required commitments. Seasonal staffing, half-year staffing ideas. 

    Off-season work is difficult to get, and there is a pool of instructors not getting the quantity of work they want. This is driven by enrollment distribution; there just aren’t as many students in our off-season. The 18-22 year-old demographic year after year is plummeting in enrollment, and they are the bulk of semester and off-season students [references semester study completed before she started]. Why isn’t that age group coming to NOLS? Lots of students are doing gap years instead of semesters; our price is an obstacle. The field of competition over the last 7-10 years has bloomed and we haven’t changed. People don’t want one skill in 30-days, they want two or three, and service work. We are working on this project in Marketing and Operations. We need to give our students what they’re asking us to teach them, but when 87% of your target market doesn’t know you exist, there is a marketing problem. Getting enrollment is necessary for us to commit to instructors full-time or year-round.

    Our semesters and 30-day courses are essential, but we need an “and.” Starting to consider things like 1-week courses; hard work but better than no work for instructors. The point of the school is to educate students, but the primary interface is instructors and program/location staff that support them. That’s what NOLS is for students. If we’re not supporting those people, then we’re going to fail. We need to understand that everything we’re doing exists to support our students, by supporting our instructors and the staff that support them.

    Tuition is high and deters students from being able to enroll. Tuition is too high, compensation isn’t enough, we have to figure something else in there. Find efficiencies: an example is 1 briefing for three 1-week courses by the same instructor team. 

    What can the NIA do? When we move forward into redesigning these things, we want to reach beyond Lander, into international, different worldviews to not miss voices and perspectives. Find ways to reach these voices.

    Dave Durant: We have NIA board members would be happy to serve on strategic planning committees. We’ve learned how we can do remote work from COVID.

    MH: [Answers Sarah’s question that an NIA rep was reinstated at all BOT meetings]. Let’s finish questions and move into small groups.

    TW: [To Aaron] Yes we are talking about locations, yes we are looking at fundraising, yes I’d love to have a further conversation. 

    [Notes from the breakout sessions and video recordings of both meetings available upon request.]

    IV. Closings 

    Invitation to continue the conversation via personal connections, emails to NIA Board Members, and NIA social media. Thank you to everyone for hosting and attending around.

  • Wednesday, March 18, 2020 10:54 PM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    NIA Board Members Present: Clemencia Caporale, Drew Seitz, Fabio Oliveira, Molly Herber, Marissa Bieger, Dave Durant


    NOLS Administrators Present: Terri Watson


    Note: The points we presented to Terri largely revolved around the six next steps given at the bottom of our NOLS' Covid-19 Response Platform Plank.  I’m going to recount just Terri’s half of the conversation here.  I’ve grouped some comments by topic, rather than adhere strictly to the order in which they were made.


    Enrollment Update


    Wilderness Medicine courses after April 23rd are actively enrolling.  “People want to take our courses,” but many sponsors can’t support existing courses due to local restrictions.  e.g. Travel restrictions, advisories against gathering in large groups, Universities and other organizations shutting down.


    Summer expeditions are still seeing enrollments, however we’re seeing a trend where people drop when their deposit is due.  We’re pushing back the due dates of these payments in order to keep people on courses.


    We are hemorrhaging Spring students.  Applications for Summer and Fall expedition courses "dropped off a cliff" on Friday.  


    Threat to NOLS


    NOLS has $14,000,000 cash on hand.  We’ve already spent several million dollars paying out cancelled contracts.  If we were to have no students through summer, then we’d run through this amount and be $3,000,000 in the hole.


    “If we’re closed through Summer, the school is in Jeopardy.”


    Fabio gave examples of other organizations (e.g. OB South Africa, OB Brazil) where employees worked through crises with no pay or half pay.  Dave stated that this would be a hard ask with NOLS sitting on such a large endowment.  Terri explained that the vast majority of the endowment is donor restricted, meaning that it can’t be used to pay out contracts, barring a change in IRS laws.  A small portion of the endowment is board restricted, and therefore more flexible.  Dave pointed out that this information about the endowment is likely not generally well understood by employees, and an effort to explain this by admin could help cultivate employee goodwill. 


    Instructor Courses


    The two cancelled ICs won’t be rescheduled.  The fate of the remaining ICs is under discussion.  NOLS understands that running ICs this year will flood the market with instructors, on the other hand they want to avoid a shortage of instructors in future years.  “If we lose all the ICs, do we take a different approach entirely to training field instructors?”


    NOLS Admin Decision Making Schedule 


    Through 3/18, admin has been focused on unwinding the logistics of what’s happened so far.  e.g. brining courses out of the field.

    Most students want NOLS to keep their tuition in order to transfer it to a future course.

    On 3/19, admin will focus on “what are the ways we model Summer?”

    On 3/20, admin will focus on “what are the ways we model the year?”

    Week of 3/23 admin will focus on what decisions (e.g. extensions of cancellations) do we need to make by what dates.  The longer there is uncertainty around where the peak of this impact is, the more conservative we will need to be. 


    Melissa Gray is leading a group coming up with guidance about when to restart courses.  One key indicator for them is CDC guidance.  Currently the CDC is advising against groups of 10 or more.  We won’t run classroom courses while this guidance is in place.  [NIA idea: are we exploring the idea of running single instructor courses with an 8:1 ratio?  Is there a price point at which these could be a feasible way to keep some income trickling in and keep at least senior instructors working?]


    SEVIS, the agency that administers the J1 visa program, requested that NOLS suspend our J1 visa program for a minimum of 60 days. NOLS has agreed to that suspension as part of this global effort   As a point of reference, even the Department of Defense has suspended official travel very broadly for a month.


    Right now we’re looking about a month down the road.  We need to get to a place where we’re looking further.  Terri: “I’m going to be surprised if the blackout date doesn’t go further.”


    Pay & Unemployment Benefits


    Expeditions is considering paying out contracts cancelled within 30 days of the start of the course, starting this summer.  (This is already Wilderness Medicine’s policy.)


    Terri relayed some info from Terry Marcus re: Unemployment Benefits.  The implication was that NOLS Instructors without future contracts are eligible.  It will vary by state, but if you worked for NOLS during that state's "lookback" period to determine eligibility and qualified wages, you qualify. If you worked for multiple employers, all those wage would be considered. Benefits vary by the state in which the claim is made.  The Unemployment Agency usually (depends on states, this describes Wyoming) looks at your income for the last 18 months, and then grants you a percentage based on some number or average of the highest Quarter. Again, really important to note that this all varies by the state in which you file. Benefits are generally only available for 26 weeks, although this has been extended during past crises.  Average maximum benefits (across the 50 states) are approximately $425 per week.  Many NOLS employees won’t qualify for this amount.  


    NOLS pays all unemployment claims directly.  If everyone who is eligible files for unemployment, this could potentially cost NOLS as much as 2-3 million dollars.  NOLS employees need not fear retaliation for seeking Unemployment.  Terri: “There are not going to be any negative consequences for anyone whole files for unemployment.”  


    The very significant increases in compensation (instructor and in-town) that Terri sought at the last Board of Trustees Meeting (and that the NIA supports) are "dead in the water” given the current crisis.  Dave validated that Terri went to bat for very significant compensation increases, and that this effort has been foiled due to no fault of anyone involved.  Terri pointed out that the NOLS Board had been largely in support of this, prior to the wider outbreak of Covid-19.  Terri, the ET, and the NOLS Board of Directors remain cognizant of the need to address this as an organization, but at this point that is very unlikely to take place in the next budget.


    Terri pointed out that if NOLS does have to go into “hibernation,” it might look different when it comes out of hibernation.  In other words, NOLS could use a period without students to envision the course volume and compensation structure that it would like to emerge with on the other side.

  • Sunday, December 01, 2019 6:35 PM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    2019 NIA Election Results


    Our 2019 Election was held from November 1st until December 1st. 


    Board of Directors


    Expedition and Wilderness Medicine Instructor Drew Seitz was re-elected to the NIA Board.


    Expedition Instructor Ira Slomski-Pritz was re-elected.


    Please welcome new Directors Caio Poletti (Expeditions and Program Supervisor) and Marissa Bieger (Expeditions).


    Many thanks to everyone who ran.


    Referendum to Amend the NIA Constitution  


    The Membership of the NIA voted 72% to 28% to amend our Constitution in order to admit in-town employees as full members.  You can read the new text of Article III, Section A (along with the rest of the Constitution) here.


    Qualified in-town employees will be eligible to join the NIA beginning on May 10th. 2020.


    NIA Priorities for the Coming Year


    Members ranked our priorities in the following order:


    1. Calling for a stated long term goal of a living wage for all employees, and a middle-class income for Senior Faculty and Staff.


    2.  Working to ensure that instructors are represented at ALL board of trustees meetings.


    3. Championing Expedition travel reimbursement equal to 100% of average travel cost.


    4.  Advocating for a Sal-Fac Faculty Chair to represent Instructors to the Executive Team.


    5.  Filling out the NIA Platform. 


    Thanks to all who voted.  Workplace democracy is not a spectator sport!


  • Sunday, February 10, 2019 7:52 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    The NOLS Board of Trustees, which the NOLS President and Executive Team ultimately report to, meets three times each year.  In February they meet in different US cities, in June they typically travel to a NOLS Campus, and in October they all come to Lander.  This February the meeting was held in Houston, TX and combined with a meeting of the Presidential Search Committee.  Because of this, the BoT meeting that just wrapped up was in a shorter format than usual, with just one Open Committee session in addition to the General Session.  I travelled to Houston to represent NOLS instructors at both the Students, Staff, and Studies Committee meeting and the General Session.  Below are a few of my observations and highlights that Faculty may find useful.  The official Notes are taken by Kathy Dunham.


    Students, Staff, and Studies

    The trustees on this committee are Jane Fried, Auny Abegglen, David Cohen, Danielle Dignan, Stuart Harris, and Stefan Jackson.  This meeting largely was largely comprised of reports (via conference call) from Liz Tuohy and Scott Robertson, which the Trustees asked clarifying questions about and occasionally offered some pushback on.


    The bulk of the meeting was taken up by Liz’s reports on new NOLS courses.  These include “co-branded” courses, as well as Affinity courses.  Recent co-branded courses include the NOLS/Saybrook University Masters in Leadership Program and the Tanzania Research Expedition, which was in partnership with both CWC and the University of Wyoming.  An upcoming co-branded offering will be an Outdoor Educator Semester on which students will also have lined up summer jobs working for Avid4Adventure after their NOLS experience ends.  The first Saybrook cohort was comprised of seven students, the second cohort will be six students.  The Tanzania Research Expedition was half students from CWC, and half open enrollment students, none of whom took this course for College Credit.  The OES/Avid course will run for the first time in the Spring of 2020.


    An upcoming Southwest Leaders of Color course currently has 7 students enrolled.  We also heard about an LGBTQ+ Canyons course scheduled for the fall of 2019, which NOLS has made the decision not to start promoting until we have additional, non-binary, gender identity options on our application.  There was significant skepticism on the part of a few Trustees about why it had taken NOLS a full year to implement non-binary gender options.  (Indeed, these options aren’t yet live.)  As an observer, it was interesting to see trustees hold the feet of a few high ranking NOLS administrators to the fire over this issue.


    Liz went on to give a short update about Expedition Instructor Training next steps.  These include a review of the Program Supervisor role headed by Anna Haegel, as well as efforts to build a healthier, more open culture of feedback on field iTeams.  Interestingly, one committee member asked “What’s a PSup?”, which I think drives home the remove at which our Trustees work from the day to day reality of NOLS.  I am sure that at times this remove can be both beneficial and harmful.


    An HQ employee who also works in the field who was present asked Liz about the power differential that exists between PSups and Instructors, who rarely have meaningful opportunities to provide constructive feedback for the people who write their SPEs.  Liz’s reply was essentially to acknowledge that this is a problem.


    Scott Robertson gave an update on the new Harassment policy, which essentially consisted of saying that we have a new policy, it took a long time to come up with, it’s on Iko Wapi, and everyone should read it.  There was some fairly energetic conversation revolving around how to ensure that existing Faculty/Staff read and understand this document.  Here, and at other times in this committee meeting, ideas were floated that would require instructors to perform additional tasks during uncompensated time.  I’d urge NOLS to find space to accommodate additional training demands within briefing time, rather than add to the already significant number of tasks instructors must do to maintain their status (re-certifying their WFR, filling out WRAPs, keeping abreast of school-wide news, etc.) on their own time.


    One thing that stood out for me about this committee meeting was that there was no mention of NOLS Wilderness Medicine whatsoever.  Aside from myself and Stuart Harris (a trustee who is also deeply involved in the Med in the Wild program) no one else in the room seemed to have any connection to this Pillar.  Indeed, the Board of Trustees as a whole seems incredibly focused on Expeditions, and the tiny Risk Services pillar was discussed more than either Custom Education of Wilderness Medicine.


    General Session

    The General Session of the Board of Trustees Meeting consisted of some parliamentary housekeeping (Call to Order, approval of October’s Meeting Notes, etc.), the reports of various committee chairs, and the NIA Report.


    The Board committees are: Students, Staff, and Studies; Audit; Risk Management; Advisory Council Update; Development and Alumni; Marketing and Systems; and Finance and Investment. Rather than review these presentations in detail, I’ll confine myself to reporting a few facts that stood out to me or are not readily available elsewhere (e.g. Board Report, Weekly Managers Notes, etc.). 


    NOLS Administration is in the early stages of planning the budget for Fiscal year 2020 (September 1st, 2019 - August 31st, 2020).  Gans said that at this point they’re envisioning a 2.5-3% increase in tuition, a 2.5% increase in compensation, and no changes to other benefits.  Inflation is predicted to be 1.9% and average increases in US wages at about 3%.  Gans mentioned briefly that he thinks low national unemployment and upward movement in wages nationally will put upward pressure on NOLS wages, especially if we want to improve in-town retention. However, he also mentioned that in recent years NOLS has at time raised compensation faster than tuition, and that this isn’t sustainable in the long term.  This is certainly true, unless NOLS were to search for efficiencies (i.e. reduce the number of employees) in HQ and in-town hierarchies.  One NOLS administrator present mentioned to me that it always possible the new President will undertake a major restructuring.


    I learned that the recently conducted Semester Study cost $300,000, and that $200,000 has been budgeted for the Presidential Search for the current Fiscal Year (ending August 31st, 2019) alone.


    NIA Report

    Finally, I was recognized to give the NIA Report.  I chose as my two main points the idea that NOLS should commit to a long term goal of a living wage for all employees and that NOLS could increase instructor buy-in in school-wide decision making by returning to having a NIA representative present at every Board of Trustees meeting.  My intent was to prepare the Trustees for the moment, later this year, when we unveil our Position Paper calling for a minimum wage and the moment when we present them with our petition calling for a return to an NIA rep at every BoT meeting.  Both of these ideas were warmly received by several individual Trustees, who approached me individually after the session adjourned and gave some very useful constructive feedback regarding the presentation of the living wage idea in the Position Paper.


    Here is the full text of my remarks:


    Good afternoon Trustees. 


    Since this is my first time here, I’d like to tell you just a little more about my NOLS background.  I took my Instructor Course in 2008 and my Wilderness Medicine Instructor Training Course in 2011.  In 2013, I was elected to the Board of Directors of the NOLS Instructor Association.  Since 2014, I’ve worked full time for NOLS as an AFP Instructor.  On January 1st, I began my term as NIA President, and it’s in that capacity that I came here today.  I feel truly honored to have been chosen by my peers to represent them, and to join in this conversation.


    Recently I had the opportunity to read through the new Expeditions Catalog, which is a beautiful document.  I noticed immediately the extent to which it leans on the expertise of our Instructor corps to pitch our expeditions:


    Page 2 boasts about “world-class instructors”


    On page 4 the instructors are “top-tier”


    On page 5 Prospective students are encouraged to “Learn from the best,” and informed that “NOLS sets the standard for instructor excellence.”


    On page 6 the line has been clearly drawn in the sand: NOLS has “the best instructors in the industry.”


    Now, no one can doubt that our students are the heart and soul of NOLS, and we pride ourselves in being student-centered in everything we do.  But it’s through NOLS’ nearly 1,000 instructors that our students experience our program and have their lives transformed.  Meaningful interaction with competent and compassionate instructors is the foundation of the NOLS experience.  Along with the wilderness itself, professional and dedicated instructors are the sine qua non of the NOLS student experience.  We at the NIA take this fact to be self evident.  While any individual instructor may be replaceable, a corps a deeply experienced, highly proficient educators is not.  I read Emily Leddingham’s rollout of an exit interview process for departing field instructors, on p.117 of the current Board Report, as one validation of this crucial point.


    Having worked in the field for 10 years, I’ve seen many fellow instructors move on.  Sometimes these folks are simply burnt out by the myriad demands - physical, emotional, and mental - of the instructor lifestyle, and their decision serves everyone.   More often, it seems that these instructors are still serving our students well, and it’s their frustration with specific aspects of our system that drives them to choose other work.


    One recent conversation I had with a highly trained instructor was representative.  As a graduate of the Professional Instructor Course, the Wilderness Medicine ITC, and numerous seminars, this is a person that NOLS has invested a great deal of money training.  Her outcomes are high and she serves her students well.  Yet she told me recently she was stepping back from fieldwork to bake in a commercial kitchen.  Will NOLS be able to carry on without her?  Surely.  Is this a loss for our school and our students?  I think it is.  Does her decision make the many dollars that NOLS used to subsidize her training money poorly spent?  This seems like one possible conclusion. 


    Of course, I asked this instructor why she was moving on.  I conducted an exit interview, if you will.  Her answer was unequivocal: “I feel like I traveled nonstop this past year and was pretty run down by it, yet I’m reporting $14k for my taxes.”  She also mentioned feeling like it was time to move on because she had recently turned 30.  This last point speaks volumes.  Our marketing materials make much of our professional instructors, yet many instructors view their often brief tenures with NOLS not as as profession, but rather as something cool to do for a few years in their 20s.


    This was driven home for me by another conversation I had a few years ago with another AFP Instructor.  She was hesitating to join the NIA, and when I asked why, she expressed that NOLS felt like an interesting way to spend her time for a few years, but not like a viable career.  When she was no longer satisfied with her situation here, she’d simply move on.  In other words, she wasn’t invested enough in NOLS to try to advocate for change.  


    Experienced, invested instructors who aren’t anxious about their financial well-being serve our students best.  My role as NIA president is to advocate on behalf of instructors, but it is also to promote the school’s mission.  NOLS’ mission is to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership.  To be the leading teacher, we need to have the best teachers.  If we want our teachers - our instructors - to continue to rise to meet our constantly evolving professional expectations, we need to treat them as professionals. 


    Towards this end, the NIA is hard at work on an in-depth Position Paper that makes the case for adopting living wages as a long term ambitious goal in the next strategic plan.  No one who dedicates a year to working for NOLS should be asked to get by on just $14,000.  Look for your copy of our position paper before the end of 2019.


    A living wage for instructors won’t be realized overnight.  There is an equally important step that NOLS can take to retain our best instructors that can happen much sooner and cost little.  This is concrete action to give faculty a meaningful role in school-wide decision making.  There exist senior instructors - I’m one of them - who believe they are already compensated fairly, but wish they could weigh in on the direction of the school in ways that go beyond a scribbled note on the bottom of a program evaluation.


    One specific step that the Board of Trustees could take in the near future that would increase the buy-in of all Instructors in school-wide decision making processes would be to invite an NIA representative to all three of these Board meetings each year.  This was standard practice for almost 20 years, from 1995 until 2014.  The additional expense would be relatively minimal, since the October meeting is traditionally held in Lander, where there are numerous NIA Board Members in residence, and the June meeting typically takes place at a NOLS campus, which would allow the NIA representative to combine their travel with their summer season commute. 


    This change appears to us to be low hanging fruit.  If nothing else, at a minimum it would serve as a gesture of good faith from the Trustees and Administration to Instructors, and I assure you, this would land well with our faculty.


    In reading Anne Magnan’s report on NOLS Custom Education in the current Notebook, I noted her solicitation of “thought partners.”  NOLS Instructors are ready and willing to serve as your thought partners on a more regular basis, if you’ll have us. 


    Keeping instructors engaged with NOLS will keep instructors at NOLS, and this will serve both our school’s mission, and our students.


    Sincere thanks for your time and consideration.          

          


  • Sunday, March 18, 2018 5:18 PM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    Dear NOLS Instructors,


    I finally found the time to read the most recent Report to the NOLS Board of Trustees.  These documents, which are published in January, June, and October each year, are the best source of information for the instructor who’d like to understand how the school functions.  This NIA believes that working instructors should have a voice in school-wide decisions.  We are, after all, by far the largest group of NOLS employees.  The more informed the Instructor Corps is, the easier it is for us to make this case.  Towards this end, we recommend that all instructors spend some time looking through each of these reports.  (You don’t need to read the whole report to glean valuable knowledge.  Some sections obviously don’t apply to non-Trustees.)  You can find the full report here on Iko Wapi.


    If you don’t have time to look through the full report, or you still need convincing, here are a selection of excerpts that I found interesting, with some light analysis given in italics.  Of course some of these may not be interesting you you.  On the other hand there is a lot more pertinent info in the report that I chose not to highlight here, for the sake of brevity.  The excerpts are grouped topically.  

        

    Excerpts from the January Report to the Board of Trustees


    NOLS Rocky Mountain


    P.33: “NOLS Rocky Mountain educates nearly 2100 students vs. 3470 for all other NOLS locations combined. Forty-one percent of all student days occur at the five locations in which NOLS Rocky Mountain operates.”  These stats speak to expedition student days and don’t include most classroom student days.  Still, it’s interesting that the RM is almost as large as all of our other Field bases put together.


    Dollars and Sense

    P.32: “While we don’t have perfect comparison data we know that 15 years ago that employees’ satisfaction with pay and benefits was about 1%. Now, satisfaction is at about 40% (with 50% being the national average).”  This seems like a remarkably positive spin to put on a 40% satisfaction rate.  Nevertheless, the point remains that NOLS has consistently, if incrementally, raised wages over the last 15 years, with the cumulative result being significantly higher compensation today than at the beginning of this period. 


    P. 132: “Work-Life Balance – Benefits and pay are a real struggle for this group. If we are not able to make improvements in these areas, we should work to provide maximum flexibility in regards to work-life balance, which may cause people to consider the non-monetary reasons for staying with the company.”  The group in question is Field Faculty.


    P. 38: “It appears that we could be on the brink of nationwide increases in inflation and compensation. Unemployment is also low enough that it could influence our ability to retain and attract employees.”  As John Gans points out here, NOLS compensation structure doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  It seems possible that satisfaction with NOLS compensation could stagnate or even decline, despite increases, if these increases don’t track or better compensation increases in the countries in which we operate.


    P.77: “$102,237,000” NOLS’ Total Assets as of December 31, 2017.  NOLS has a lot of money.  To be sure, this isn’t exclusively “cash on hand.”  This figure includes endowment funds, the value of capital assets, and even receivables - money NOLS is owed but hasn’t collected yet.  Nevertheless, the point stands: NOLS has become a very large company with very significant assets, and these assets are growing rapidly.  By way of comparison, in October of 2005, the number was $41,668,000. 


    Profit versus Sustainability 


    p.34: “With the change in the administration in the White House we have some legislation that has a better chance of passing now than it has in the past regarding larger group sizes.”  We don’t need to do a complex economic analysis (although I suspect someone at NOLS has) in order to know that a larger group size makes it easier for NOLS to net more income from a given course.  We also know that larger groups have a larger environmental impact.  Where is the balance point between increased income and maintaining our environmental ethics? 


    Instructor Development


    P.34:  “Regarding accreditation: universities are checking the academic level of our instructors. Consider using scholarship funds to send some of our faculty to get Masters of Education degrees.”  This was a comment from an individual trustee.  A nice idea, to say the least.


    Conceptualizing Enrollment and Revenue 

    P. 67: “Revenue from our Expedition programs is lower than at this time last year and we also project that we will fall below our budget target for the year. In addition, we are projecting that Wilderness Medicine revenue will fall below budget due to lower than expected enrollment in the Wilderness Medicine and Rescue Semester. (It is of note that Wilderness Medicine classroom enrollment is tracking ahead of budget. This is leading us to project that total operating revenue will be lower than budget, though higher than last year.”


    P. 83: “The Wilderness Medicine and Rescue Semester (WMR) is not the semester silver bullet we had hoped. In past years it has seemed to be the one “sure” thing for semester enrollment. Sadly this spring that is proving to not be the case, with the WMR significantly under-enrolled.”


    P.122: “Wilderness Medicine may be the one exception. It confronts a hefty challenge to meet its revenue target this year. Despite significant growth in classroom programs (students, student days, and courses), disappointing forecasted spring enrollment on the Wilderness Medicine Rescue Semester creates a challenging financial gap to bridge through the rest of the fiscal year. Wilderness Medicine is looking at options to create additional classroom capacity in the Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician program to offset some of the loss in revenue.”  


    These three quotes together provide an interesting case study in how NOLS administration conceives of concepts such as “expected enrollment” and “loss of revenue.”  The way these terms are used is non-intuitive, at least to me.  To read these quotes, you would think that WMR enrollment had collapsed catastrophically.  This is, in fact, not the case.  WMR sections have a capacity of 15.  In previous springs NOLS has run two sections of the WMR.  In 2018, a third was added, bringing capacity up to 45.  As of the writing of the Report to the Board of Trustees, there were 32 WMR students enrolled in Spring semesters - more students than had ever taken a Spring WMR in the past (see p. 96).  As far as I can tell, “loss of revenue” doesn’t actually mean earning less money than in previous years, it just means earning less than the goal NOLS had set for itself.  (It’s worth noting that NOLS can literally lose money on a course if that specific course is under enrolled.  It’s also worth noting that as I write this, both sections of the Fall 2018 WMR are, I believe, fully enrolled.    


    The Changing Face of NOLS


    P. 90: “High-school segment growth is masking core college segment declines.”

     

    P.121: “We have an incredibly robust IC applicant pool this year with roughly a 4:1 ratio of applicants to available roster spots.“ 


    Employee Retention


    P.127: “I have reported over the last decade the fact that we are consistently challenged by high turnover in our support positions. In FY17 our turnover rate was 35% and predominantly in positions below the management level.”  From the Wilderness Medicine Report.


    P. 129 “More than one third of this office has turned over within the last six months;”  From the Field Staffing Office report.


    P. 150: “All team members are performing well and seem to fit at NOLS and in Lander, which has not always been true with IS hires. The compensation changes that we made in September, 2015 and have recently tweaked have definitely contributed to our ability to recruit and keep programmers.” 


    P. 130: “Find ways to effectively develop and retain the instructors we need for a shortened, heightened peak, as off-season work continues to decline.”  An alarming sentence.  The more field work becomes compressed into a mid-summer peak, the less possible it will be to make a living as a NOLS field instructor.



  • Friday, January 26, 2018 9:03 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    2017 NIA Election Results

    Dave Durant, NIA Board of Directors


    The recent NIA Election (November 17th - December 17th) gave members a chance to weigh in on six new Board Members, what the NIA’s top priorities should be for 2018, and whether or not NOLS Employees who aren’t active instructors should be able to join the NIA in the future.  Read on for results and analysis.


    Board: Results


    Incumbent Board Members Dave Durant, Drew Seitz, Annemarie Vocca, and Ira Slomski-Pritz were re-elected.  Expeditions Instructor and NOLS Wilderness Medicine HQ Staff Member Mike Froehly was elected to the Board.  Expeditions Instructor and NIA Northeast Branch Representative Hannah Darrin was elected to the Board.  All of the above are for terms ending in December, 2019.


    Mike’s mini-bio on the NIA Board page reads: Mike was a student on the Semester for Outdoor Educators in 2011 and fell in love with NOLS. He took his IC in the Southwest in 2014. He works hiking, mountaineering, and climbing courses in the SW, RM, and PNW. Mike currently splits his time between being a field instructor and a Staffing Coordinator for Wilderness Medicine.


    Hannah’s mini-bio on the NIA Board page reads: Hannah took the sailing IC at NOLS México in 2012. She balances sailing in the spring and fall with hiking and canoeing out of NOLS Northeast in the summer. Hannah got her first taste of the NIA in the Coulter Loft in 2015, and has been the Northeast branch rep ever since. Problem solving and collaboration that yield positive change are her passions.


    For our first act of the new year, the Board of Directors appointed Expedition Instructor Julia “Pieps” Pieper to serve out the remainder of Casey Pikla’s term, which runs till the end of 2018.  (Casey stepped down, citing insufficient time to fulfill NIA duties.)  Pieps’ mini-bio on the NIA Board page reads:  Pieps first came to NOLS as a student on a Year in Patagonia in 2007. After a brief hiatus to study engineering, she returned for an IC in 2013. Since then Pieps has worked Backpacking, Canoeing, Canyoneering, and Winter courses. When not working in the field, she resides in the Teton Valley and spends free time aspiring to become a packrafter. 


    On behalf of all the returning Directors, I’d like to welcome Mike, Hannah, and Pieps to the Board.  We are truly excited for your energy and contributions.  Volunteering your time to represent your fellow instructors is much appreciated.


     Board: Analysis


    • We are pleased to once again have a full complement of 12 Directors.  Although the Board has been full every year since I joined in 2013, this hasn’t been true throughout the NIA’s 43 year history.  Read about all 12 Board Members, and the NIA President here: http://nolsinstructorassociation.org/board.
    • Incumbents continue to be highly favored in the Board election.
    • Over the past two years voters have consistently rewarded candidates who work across pillars (e.g. Expeditions and Wilderness Medicine) or who work both as Instructors and in HQ.
    • As excited as we are to welcome our new Board Members, we will miss the concrete contributions of those Members who chose not to stand for re-election.  In particular, we appreciate the hard work over the past several years of Abbie Wehner, who served as Treasurer, and Allie Maloney, who as Visibility Coordinator oversaw our efforts at the Faculty Summit.


    Poll Question 1: Results


    The first poll question read: “What do you think the NIA’s priorities should be for 2018?”  Participants were then prompted to rank six potential priorities.  Here they are, in order of popularity:


    1. Calling for a stated long-term goal of a living wage for all employees and a middle-class income for Senior Faculty and Staff.
    2. Continuing to gather data about instructor cost of living and wage comparisons across the outdoor industry in order to support a "white paper" that will be submitted to the Board of Trustees to inform the next strategic plan.
    3. Championing Expedition travel reimbursement equal to 100% of average travel cost.
    4. Working to ensure Instructors are represented at ALL Board of Trustees meetings.
    5. Advocating for a Sal-Fac Faculty Chair to represent Instructors to the Executive Director Team.
    6. Filling out the NIA Platform so that we can better articulate what we stand for.


    Poll Question 1: Analysis


    • Three of six options given touched on compensation in some way.  These three options were ranked first, second, and third.  The conclusion that compensation remains at the forefront of instructors’ minds is inescapable.  
    • Voters seem more enthusiastic about ambitious, broad goals rather than those which are narrower or attainable in a shorter time frame.
    • Submit your data on wage comparisons across the outdoor industry here: http://nolsinstructorassociation.org/Comp.


    Poll Question 2: Results

    The second poll question read: Article III, Section A of the NIA Constitution states that active Expedition and Wilderness Medicine Instructors are eligible to be Members in full.  There is no equivalent organization to represent other NOLS employees, such as in-town or HQ staff.  Should the NIA hold a vote in 2018 to amend its Constitution in order to open membership to anyone who draws a paycheck from NOLS? (Note: this is an opinion poll to inform future action, NOT a referendum to amend our Constitution.)


    55.22% of respondents were in favor of opening up NIA membership to all NOLS employees. 46.27% were opposed.


    Poll Question 2: Analysis


    • This is a striking change of opinion in just one year.  On the 2016 ballot, 44% favored expanding NIA membership.  Here, the proportions have inverted.
    • Anecdotally, this does seem to represent a trend, rather than a blip.  There was considerable interest by in-town employees in the Annual General Meeting last May (20% of attendees were NOLS employees who were not instructors), and in-town employees had a table at the Faculty Summit where they gathered ideas for organized representation.


  • Sunday, June 11, 2017 2:13 PM | Sean Williams

    The June 2017 Board of Trustees meeting just finished at NOLS Alaska. Here are some highlights from the open sessions, including an explanation of the Compensation Comparables study, recently conducted by Linda Lindsey. These are only highlights; the official minutes will be published, as usual, in the next Board of Trustees Report in October. The Board Report, available online at the link above and in paper copies at every NOLS location, really is good reading, and is easy to navigate if you look at the Table of Contents and find the sections that interest you.

     

     

    The Marketing Committee

     

    The Marketing Committee discussed, among other things, some exciting developments in how NOLS plans to use scholarship money to strategically support enrollment in key areas, such as on semesters. The detailed analysis by Joe Ostlund, found on pages 91-95 in the Board report, is really worth reading: http://rendezvous.nols.edu/files/Human_Resources/Board_Reports/NOLS-BOT-Report-June-2017-Open-Session-web.pdf

    In short, after thoughtful discussion at the February Board meeting (and at previous ones) ended with the impression that NOLS could be more intentional with our goals and priorities in awarding scholarships, the Admissions and Marketing department got to work crunching the numbers and creating a nuanced strategy.  

     

    • The shorter and cheaper IC ($2,900 vs. $5,000+) will free up $100,000 of scholarship money, which will be put towards fall semesters.
    • NOLS Patagonia, which has received a disproportionate amount of scholarship money almost since its founding to support the development of Chilean instructors, will give up a few of their many scholarships, including those for mountaineering courses and the PY. The $64,000 to $100,000 saved will also go towards fall semesters (Presumably, Patagonia semesters will still have one Chilean scholarship student, as they always have).
    • There will be fewer scholarships for summer courses ($50-75k total).

     

    The overall goal is to support enrollment on semesters, which has been declining for years. Semesters provide a very large proportion of NOLS’s total revenue, operate with much greater operational efficiency than shorter courses (see Jamie O’Donnell’s report on 7-9 day courses, pages 53-58 of the board report), provide off-season employment for faculty and in-town staff, and extend NOLS’s mission in a deep and full way, due to their length. Declining enrollment on our longer courses means that, even while total numbers of NOLS students are slowly increasing, total student days spent at NOLS are slowly going down. Turning around the decline in enrollment of semesters is, for all these reasons, a key strategic goal at the school. The NIA supports this goal in particular, due to the positive effect of semesters on off-season employment, and thus on long-term, year-round job security for instructors.

     

    Analysis of the Systems and Services Optimization survey, responded to in 2015 by many groups at NOLS, including the NIA, is yielding a set of priorities for short- and long-term changes in NOLS’s organization and systems (see page 97-99 of the Board report). One particularly exciting element is a total revamp of Rendezvous, most likely using Google Sites, on budget for FY18. This has been discussed and requested for many, many years, and it is exciting to see a plan and forward progress.

     

    The Students Staff, and Studies Committee, including the Compensation Comparables Study

     

    Linda Lindsey conducts a “comparables” study every three to four years in order to determine how NOLS’ payscales stack up to other organizations in outdoor education. She explained in detail how these studies work, including where the data for comparison comes from (and why, for field staff and wilderness medicine staff, data is very difficult to find).

     

    First off, NOLS’ goal, since the 1990s, has been to slightly exceed the median pay rate for non-profits in outdoor education in the U.S. (i.e., neither to have the highest pay nor the lowest pay, but to stay slightly ahead of the middle). So, the Comparables Study described how NOLS compensation for in-town, field, and wilderness medicine staff compares to the median among comparable organizations. Each area also included detailed analysis of different seniority levels, and changes from the last study in 2014; these details won’t be summarized here.

     

    The available data for comparison is very different for in-town, field, and wilderness medicine staff. For in-town staff, Linda uses the Non-Profit Times study of 300 non-profits across the nation, specifically for 22 non-profits of a similar size to NOLS in terms of revenue. She also compares NOLS to the Fremont County Wage Survey, which surveys mostly for-profit business in Fremont County, Wyoming, where Lander is located. This information puts NOLS in-town compensation well below the median, generally 70-90%. In addition, NOLS employees at mid- and upper pay levels tend to have more seniority than those in similar positions at comparable organizations. This ought to put the NOLS employees’ compensation even higher, but in fact it is lower. Linda said NOLS has been below median for in-town compensation ever since she has been doing these studies.

     

    For field staff, much less data is available. Because there are no third-party studies, NOLS simply contacts other organizations and offers to exchange information. For reasons of competitiveness, few organizations are willing to make this exchange, so NOLS simply cannot find out what most of our competitors are paying their field staff. For this study, we have data from 7 Outwoard Bound locations, the Wild Rockies Field Institute, Where There Be Dragons, and the National Center for Adventure Education. This comparison puts NOLS field pay above the median, generally 110-120%. Also, none of these organizations continues to increase pay at seniority levels above 200 weeks, while NOLS goes all the way to 500 weeks (albeit with small increases).

     

    For Wilderness Medicine staff, the data is not much better. WMA, our main competitor, does not share their information, so we use the payscales for adjunct faculty at several community colleges who teach EMT courses. On the NOLS side, we compare only the pay for the Lead Instructor on WEMT courses. On this basis, NOLS is 167% of the median for lower seniority positions, and 106% at the top of the pay scale.

     

    One of the upshots of all this is that in-town pay appears to be farther from median than field staff pay. Linda offered several theoretical solutions to resolve this discrepancy, including freezing or reducing field pay. However, vigorous discussion, with contributions from your NIA representative and several of the field and in-town staff present, ended with a sense that NOLS needs more information on comparables for field and Wilderness Medicine faculty in order to make decisions on the larger comparison between the three sets (i.e., to try to get them all situated at the same distance from the median). There was general agreement that the data for in-town staff comparables are very good, and clearly indicate that NOLS is not meeting its goal of being slightly above the median, but that the situation is not so clear for field or wilderness medicine staff. There was also concern that the in-town side uses NOLS data mostly for full-time, benefited positions, while the field and Wilderness Medicine sets are almost all contract positions with no benefits, making comparison between these sets even harder.

     

    Just to be perfectly clear, it did not appear that freezing or reducing pay for anyone is actually in the offing; just that the situation for in-town compensation appears increasingly urgent, and the situation for field and wilderness medicine staff is not as well understood.

     

    Linda also provided statistics for turnover of full-time in-town staff, which is an astonishing 26% per year (meaning that 26% of in-town staff leave NOLS every year, to be replaced by brand-new people - other NOLS staff also move positions within NOLS every year). Staff members present asked about part-time in-town staff turnover, which appears to be hard to measure, since these individuals technically ‘leave’ at the end of each part-time contract. NOLS also has turnover figures for field and wilderness medicine staff, which are in the teens. It is not clear to the NIA how this is measured, since field staff all work by contract, rarely work full-time, and sometimes return after long hiatuses. Regardless, there was general consensus that 26% for in-town staff is too high.

     

    The General Session

     

    The in-town staff presentation during the General Session was made by Kristen Brown, Senior Admissions Officer, who will be the representative for in-town staff at the June meetings for the foreseeable future. Kristen’s main topic was workload and turnover in the admissions office. The salary itself turns away many job applicants, leading to frequent and frustrating searches to replace admissions officers, who rarely last for more than one year. Kristen’s realistic and optimistic goal is for them to last through at least two busy seasons (spring is their busiest time), and an ideal goal would be for admissions officers to stay five years in their positions. Most admissions officers are quite young. Some have never taken a course, but these are usually sent on a short field course so that they learn more about the NOLS field experience. Possible reasons for the turnover, in addition to the low salary, are overwork (50-odd emails per day, 2-3 hours on phone and chat per day), a lack of ‘onboarding’, or clear training and apprenticeship before they jump fully into their responsibilities, and a felt distance from the rewarding experiences of actual student outcomes on courses. Kristen and others in the department are working hard on creative ideas to improve this situation, and have made good progress on improving the onboarding experience. She is hoping that this makes newer admissions officers feel more successful, and thus makes them more likely to stay longer in their positions.

     

    Sydney Clark, NOLS Diversity and Inclusion Manager, gave a 45 minute presentation on diversity and inclusion efforts at NOLS. A main emphasis was the need for NOLS to more actively reach out to minority communities to show them the value of a NOLS course and show that they could fit in and belong in the NOLS community. It isn’t enough just to expect minority individuals to come to us, and maybe offer them scholarships to make this easier. Sydney gave the example of the exploding phenomenon of social media-driven travel communities for affluent African-Americans, which shows that individuals in this community are seeking exotic, challenging, and adventurous experiences, are willing to join groups and pay for it, and thus might be very interested in NOLS, if NOLS were to actively reach out and make it clear that they can belong here.  Sydney pointed out that scholarship-driven diversity efforts, while important as part of an overall strategy, do not present a sustainable business model, nor a sustainable, long-term model for real diversity and inclusion.  20 minutes of discussion followed, with some enthusiasm from the Trustees for the idea, aptly articulated by David Cohen, that NOLS ought to approach diversity and inclusion as a business opportunity, with a business strategy, rather than as separate efforts to be added to our basic business model.

     

    John Gans thanked Pip Coe for her sixteen years of service in her current position, and emphasized the amazing success she has had. NOLS is in a completely different situation in terms of development, fundraising, and endowment, largely thanks to Pip’s efforts and direction. John also described the assembly of a search committee to hire Pip’s replacement. He expects to include phone interviews for the candidates with one or two current faculty members, who also have extensive experience in the development field.

     

    As usual, the meeting was full of passion, energy, humor, and very good ideas. The meeting ended with a spectacular party at the Farm, with 130 attendees who came out of the woodwork from all over Alaska. Several of the Trustees and their family members, along with John Gans and Jeff Buchanan, are now off for a 5-day Board sea kayaking trip to get a taste for one of NOLS Alaska’s primary operating areas, Prince William Sound.

  • Tuesday, May 23, 2017 6:14 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    NIA Summer Membership Drive

    Ira Slomski-Pritz, Field Faculty & NIA Board Member


    Our biggest expedition is the one that takes us zig-zagging across states and continents, in vans and trucks and planes, away from loved ones, rarely with certaintythe incredible journey of making a meaningful life while working for NOLS.


    On this expedition, what do we owe our fellow expedition members?


    NOLS instructors are remarkable expedition mem- bers in the field. However, it seems to me that sometimes the EB gets left behind in the frontcountry. A handful of instructors have volunteered their time through the NIA to better the experience of all instructors by running a Mentorship program, representing the instructor corps to the EDT and Board of Trustess and advocating for fair pay and travel reimbursement, especially for inter- national instructors. It’s easy to take past successes (i.e. seminars, prodeals) for granted, and to think we are on this expedition alone. That may be why only about a quarter of NOLS instructors are NIA membersa fact that can be used to push back against NIA advocacy. Low instructor membership undermines the influence of all instructors in school-wide decision making.

    We work now in a consequential moment in NOLS history: we have rebranded; the ‘standard’ NOLS course is changing rapidly. As NOLS continues to evolve, to what extent will we, who live the NOLS mission, have a voice at the table?


    I don’t think I have ever successfully explained a NOLS course to someone who hasn’t been on one. My descriptions leave out countless moments of awe, adversity, conflict, unity, or hopes achieved or dashed the moments that constitute the soul of a NOLS course.


    It’s hard to put a soul on a spreadsheet. Out of necessity, the people who make big decisions at the school are talented, devoted, and good at running large organizations, but are also quite removed from what a NOLS course feels like. Instructor input is crucial to steering NOLS going forward. 


    We only speak strongly when we speak together. Discordant voices of concern spoken in sta houses or scribbled on program evals amount to little more than white noise, easily overlooked. The NIA proudly keeps membership voluntary. But that doesn’t mean abstention is neutral or without consequence. Choosing to not be a member weakens the influence of all instructors trying to participate.


    Just as we tell the student that sits blankly on their pack while everyone else is studying the map, we must engage. But in this context, good expedition behavior doesn’t mean getting out of the tent in the middle of the storm or carrying extra weight up the mountain. It just means joining the NIA, paying $20 once a year. It’s simple, it’s easy, and yet higher membership will still go a long way.


    To that end, we are launching a summer membership drive. Our goal is to increase membership from 1/4 to 1/3 of all instructors by August 31 (300 instructors instead of 230).


    Take part. Take three minutes and do it now. Current members should contribute by recruiting one more; if each member recruits one new instructor, membership doubles. To sweeten the deal, new members will get a beanie or trucker hat (or a sweet belt buckle if they chose to become a lifetime member).


    Join because you love NOLS, or because you are concerned for the future. Join because especially today when it is easy to feel powerless and resigned, making a di erence begins at a local level: at your workplace, in your town. Join because being engaged is central to what we do. It’s what we teach. 

  • Saturday, March 04, 2017 10:21 AM | Sean Williams


    Notes from the February, 2017 Board of Trustees meeting

    Sean Williams, NIA President


                The following notes are highlights and notes from the meetings that your NIA representative attended, from an NIA perspective, rather than a comprehensive summary of the entire board meeting.  Minutes will be published with the June Board of Trustees report, edited by Kathy Dunham.


                The February 2017 Board of Trustees meeting was a success in terms of progress and awareness on issues and ideas that are dear to the hearts of many NOLS staff and to the NIA.  Read on for highlights and details to get a glimpse of how the Trustees and EDT work together and how they respond to the faculty’s input.

                The response from the Trustees and EDT to the results and analysis of the NIA’s lifestyle survey (http://www.nolsinstructorassociation.org/bot/4513183) was overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. The NIA received appreciations both in private and in public for our efforts gathering this data and presenting it in a useful way, as well as offers of advice and assistance on future research efforts. The Trustees and EDT seemed to really appreciate a more nuanced, data-driven, and numbers-focused presentation of the facts presented by the survey. With more data in the future, perhaps on different questions, and with continued emphasis by the NIA on presenting facts and possible solutions, rather than just making demands, I believe we can expect that these issues around income, job security, and career feasibility will become even greater priorities within NOLS’s leadership as time goes on.

                I attended the “Staff, Students, and Studies” Committee meeting as well as the General Meeting. The Staff, Students, and Studies meeting was large, with around half of the Trustees as well as Deborah Nunnink and Scott Robertson attending, and much of the discussion revolved around compensation and difficulties in hiring for various positions. Turnover of in-town staff was 26% in FY16, the highest in ten years (it was 33% in 2007). Several positions, including NOLS Custom account managers, the Alaska Director, and international program staff have been difficult to hire for. Field staff turnover is not as high, but there is widespread recognition that underemployment is a problem for field staff. Trustee Jane Fried asked about the philosophy behind choosing who to give contracts to in an underemployment situation; Scott explained the combination of seniority, performance as documented on SPEs, skill types, and availability that drives Staffing decisions. Scott also clarified that NOLS cannot operate with full employment of field staff, because it needs some flexibility (i.e. instructors willing to take last-minute contracts) as enrollment and other instructors’ schedules change, but acknowledged that the current level of underemployment is hard for many instructors. One Trustee asked if “low pay grade turnover” is a strategy at NOLS, and expressed his relief when Scott explained that this is not an intentional strategy, but that it does have an effect on overall compensation costs as both field and in-town staff leave the school before advancing very far up the payscales. Scott reported that we had 255 applicants for 100 IC spots, and that their quality in his opinion was very high.

                As seems to happen every meeting, several Trustees expressed concern that compensation continues to rise faster than tuition, and pointed out that this is financially unsustainable unless NOLS has significant other sources of income . This conversation started in the committee meeting and continued in the general meeting. Jane Fried emphasized that NOLS needs a better grasp of its “budget levers,” i.e., where exactly will the money for an increase in one expense come from, if not from an equal increase in revenue? In the General Meeting, John Gans explained that NOLS has released money from the Endowment to Operations for several years ($1.1 million in 2016), and that this significant non-tuition revenue helps to offset increased expenses, such as compensation (which is 55% of NOLS’s overall expenses).

                In this context, the subject of the gain share came up several times. There is some skepticism among the Trustees about whether paying out a gain share at the end of the fiscal year really creates much sense of reward or appreciation among employees. I told them that while an unexpected check is always appreciated, it does not improve the feeling that every other paycheck seems small and that the job feels insecure, and that allocating this money to compensation would probably affect employees in a more positive way since they could then plan on a slightly higher income. The idea of using that money towards scholarships, in the hopes that this would increase enrollment, and thus decrease underemployment, was also raised, but it was not clear if the money could be targeted toward scholarships in a way that would be guaranteed to improve the underemployment situation. There was no clear resolution about the gain share (which is dependent on the school meeting its budget and ending the year with extra money), just discussion.

                In terms of the tuition increase, most of it will occur on summer courses, and there will be no increase on fall and spring semesters - this is to encourage more growth in the off-season, and should help with employment for instructors. Admissions is also experimenting with differential tuition - for example, early and late WRWs will cost slightly less than mid-summer WRWs, to reduce the need for so many instructors at the peak of summer.

                In the Blue Sky session, where Trustees share off-the-wall ideas for discussion later, the idea of a “staff buddy” for Trustees was brought up, in which Trustees would be paired with a NOLS employee to stay in touch and learn more about one aspect of the school. Another idea was offering lessons or seminars in cultural competency for the Trustees, so that they stay up-to-speed with this area of significant change at NOLS. There was a shout-out for the general success of NOLS with fundraising in general: it basically just started 10 years ago, and we now have a $35 million endowment which we are expecting to double in the next big fundraising campaign. In the near to medium future, this will begin to be enough money to significantly affect the school’s operations and finances.

                As usual, the passion and commitment of the Trustees and the EDT to NOLS was on full display at this meeting. Many, many other topics were discussed, and the minutes from each meeting are a good way to get a sense for the whole discussion. The Trustees’ ability to quickly wrap their heads around complex issues at the school, offer solutions, and provide informed critique of decisions is truly impressive. The EDT’s depth of knowledge and the complexity of the decisions they have to make is equally impressive. We are lucky we have these groups looking out for us, and making sure that NOLS is humming away in the background so that we can go out and run great courses.  

  • Wednesday, January 04, 2017 10:17 AM | Sean Williams

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