Sense and Sustainability
Toby Harper, NIA President
The mission of the NIA is to communicate and advocate instructor views,
working within the NOLS community to promote the school s mission and values.
After a hot ski course in the Tetons, and a semester rock camp in Sin City without a rain day, now I find snow in Lander! Since the last newsletter I’ve been in the field a little, figuring that by being an instructor I can probably better lead on instructor views. I now plan to spend the month catching up with NIA business in preparation for the June Board of Trustees meetings. For those of you who haven’t checked out the report from February’s meetings, it’s on Rendezvous, along with the last newsletter. For NIA members my articles are also in the Files section of the Yahoo site, along with various other documents.
Whenever I’m in Lander I am impressed with the high quality energy of the goings on at HQ. This latest visit was no different, sitting in on the Program Supervisors meetings the last week of March, and participating in a great meeting with John Gookin and the U. of Utah folks about the Outcomes study, I was reminded that NOLS functions in large part on the hard work of exceptional individuals. The meetings I had recently with Linda Lindsey and Pete Absolon re. the SRDR and Human Resources, and with Deborah Nunnink re. the Directors meetings and budget process are examples of high quality, high-energy interaction between the NIA and administrators. My thanks to these folks, and others, who have demonstrated their investment in Field Instructors by spending time with me in person, on the phone and over email.
Reasonable and Sustainable
I spent the first quarter of my term as NIA president building relationships with the various audiences with whom I am to communicate, and outlining my goals for the year, what I understand to be the primary concerns of NIA members. The theme for me this quarter is to break the concept of Compensation, as the staff survey did, into Pay and Benefits, and emphasize the latter specifically with regard to health insurance reimbursements. In the survey results faculty placed “my needs are satisfied by the benefits I receive” as the number one “high importance/low performance” issue. The SRDR has interpreted these data and come up with some recommendations. These are now on the table as these months (April-May) are budget-building time at the NOLS.
Health Insurance Reimbursement, how it works.
The current health insurance reimbursement program for NOLS Field Instructors, unless you’re on AFP, essentially works like this:
∑ If you have less than 150 field weeks for NOLS you have to work 15 weeks in a year to be reimbursed 3% per week you work for the health insurance costs you submit to Barb Worley that year. If you have over 150 weeks for NOLS you’ll be reimbursed 3% per week even in you work fewer than 15 weeks. Thus, for a simple example, I have fewer than 150 weeks, I submit my insurance receipt to Barb, my plan cost $1500, if I work 17 weeks this year I should be reimbursed 17 x 3%, or 0.51 of 1500, or $765).
Last year, and again this month, the SRDR recommended a change to this program, to increase the health insurance reimbursement from 3% to 4% per week (at an expected cost of $18,000). From a Field Instructor perspective this change is important:
∑ because increased benefits are what we have consistently asked for,
∑ because, in my example above, I would get 255 additional untaxed dollars back at the end of the year, and
∑ because health insurance reimbursement at 4% per week helps to define 25 weeks per year as a “reasonable and sustainable” amount of work, something we’ve been saying for a long time (25 weeks at 4% would be 100% reimbursement). This would be an important step at NOLS, as the “leading source and teacher of wilderness skills”, in showing a commitment to outdoor education as a professional career.
I recently spoke with Deborah Nunnink to find out how the Branch Directors meetings went, and how the budget process is going. I am continually impressed with her communication skills, she explained the process, which is complex, in a way that I understand better and can relate to instructors (please see her newsletter articles, raise a question on the NIA Yahoo site, or contact me if you want some part of the process explained specifically).
I was disappointed to hear that the directors, while attempting to incorporate the SRDR recommendations, at the time I’m writing this, are falling short of budget targets. When asked what the SRDR would sacrifice first in budget cuts the committee chose the health reimbursement change explained above. My understanding is that the SRDR recommended this with the hope of protecting their number one recommendation, another year of 4.65% payroll budget increase.
Because both issues continue to be so important for faculty, I emphasized to Deborah that presenting a budget which includes the SRDR recommendations for payroll (approximately $450,000) and benefits ($18,000) is what Field Instructors expect based on the staff survey results. The number one driver of employee commitment according to the Morehead study was “Information from this survey will get used to make improvements”.
The cost of increasing health insurance reimbursement is small compared to the huge benefit of re-defining what is reasonable and sustainable for outdoor educators. Looking forward to the summer, and reflecting on past courses, I think its crucial for Field Instructors and administrators to contemplate how a “reasonable and sustainable” workload directly supports the school’s mission by creating great program quality and student outcomes.
Topping the list of issues internal to the NIA I am working on this year is membership. Thanks very much to all our members; your support gives lungs to the NIA voice. The last number I heard from Pete for the size of the Field Instructor pool was 504, more than half of these are NIA members! If you’re a member and can’t get onto the Yahoo site to share your views, please contact me to figure it out; our mission is to communicate, let’s use the communication tools available to us. For those Field Instructors who are not members, please join us, or let me know why you’ve chosen not to so we can consider changing to meet your needs. Joining before the 6th of June will definitely strengthen my message at the Board of Trustees meeting.
While attending the Program Supervisor meetings, at least the staffing bits, I was reminded of how important the Psup/Staffing Coordinator level is to Field Instructors. While the NIA exists to communicate between instructors and administrators, the Psups and Staffing folks are the level at which much of this filtering is done in NOLS’ administrative structure. These folks have challenging jobs, please remember to thank them.
Other things I learned about at those meetings, which are likely outlined in this newsletter, include:
∑ some significant changes to the Dreamsheet process,
∑ a pay bump for hard-to-staff WRW and Adventure CLs during the busy part of the summer, and
∑ a great new staffing appication called STARZ that I feel will improve Field Instructor’s professional development.
Pete Absolon has been extremely helpful and I feel very successful at making pro-instructor changes as Associate Director of Human Resources. I’d like to point out recent examples of successes in the relationship between the NIA and HR; two quick ones come to mind:
∑ HR recently asked the NIA what instructors would think about our new title “NOLS Field Instructor”. I asked various folks and went ahead and said that was fine, it was an informal check, on a relatively small issue, yet one which again demonstrated that the NIA is a respected place to dip into the instructor pool.
∑ From an instructor perspective a 4.65% increase in budgetary allocation for payroll isn’t the same as a “pay raise” because, for various reasons, nobody really sees their paycheck go up by 4.65%. I feel the wording of Pete’s Benefits article in the February newsletter is much clearer than the explanations that went out with the 2005 pay matrix about budgetary allocation for pay versus pay raise. These changes, I believe, are due in part to NIA feedback.
I’ve received feedback that a hot topics section in my communications is helpful to instructors. For those who have not been on the Yahoo site lately, here are some recently discussed issues:
∑ “Merit-pay” created a remarkable amount of discussion. When asked for a position on the current Merit Pay system by HR I conducted some very unscientific research, polling Field Instructors who both had and had not received it in the past. The NIA has since released a statement that we support the selection process outlined in Abby’s November newsletter article, and that we propose emphasizing the personal letters of thanks and getting rid of the $100 checks, as long as we can participate in deciding where this money goes... Some options for this money include increasing the budget of various benefit programs, or spreading it out, symbolically, across the pay matrix. What do you think?
∑ It looks like the Noble renovation project is going ahead starting in September. On my to-do list is discussing instructor resources in the new facility with John Stoddard and Dave Glenn. Field Instructors, how would computers and storage space best work for you? What else?
∑ I recently participated in an Outcomes research meeting to develop a survey that will help determine how course factors affect student outcomes. I emphasized that the seniority, as well as the gender mix, of the I-team would be important variables to look at. I believe that these studies are crucial to both improving program quality and to professionalizing the faculty. I know it is more paperwork at the end of a course, yet I encourage you all to put energy into them, and to be honest; the purpose of these studies is academic, not to evaluate your performance.
∑ Various international issues are being discussed as NOLS continues to grow around the globe. These issues include the new $100 Homeland Security fees for foreign instructors working in the US, as well as the differential pay scales being developed for foreign instructors working in their home countries. What do you feel NOLS’ strategy should be when operating in countries with different politico-economic conditions?
∑ Comparables are an ongoing topic, now particularly related to the goal of retaining senior Field Instructors. Which organizations are people leaving NOLS to go work at? Why? (Is this what next year’s survey process should ask?)
Ups and Comings
As initiated by Rick Rochelle I’ll be encouraging NIA board members to lead on giving to the NOLS Annual Fund; remember that participation (rather than how much you give) is most important. With a busy summer coming up I’d like to thank the folks who have volunteered to represent the NIA at their NOLS Locations (formerly know as Branches), including Ashley Wise in Vernal, Pat Mettenbrink in Tucson, and Brendan Madden in Whitehorse. My thanks to Matt Lloyd for doing so much work as NIA Treasurer, and for participating in meetings while I’ve been away. Thanks as well to Les van Barselaar, the NIA Vice President, who ran information sessions in Mexico this winter, and will be working for the NIA in Lander this summer. I plan to have similar sessions in the Yukon and Pacific Northwest in the next few months; if you’ll be in Whitehorse the evening of June 12th, or Conway around the 26th of July, please let me know. If you’re interested in doing something NIA-related at your location this summer please contact me as well.
I would like to reinforce that the above article is a combination of my own goals, and of both formal and informal discussions within the NIA. As president my role is to be a voice for the NIA board, which should be a distillation of the voices of the NIA membership, which I hope to be representative of the wider NOLS Field Instructor population. I thank all those who are already NIA members, and encourage everyone who has not joined to do so and to actively participate. I’m especially interested in hearing ways in which the NIA may not represent your views.