President, NOLS Instructor Association
To communicate and advocate employee views, and to work within the NOLS community to promote the school’s mission and values.
I would like to convey our best regards, from the NIA Board of Directors to the NOLS Board of Trustees, in these exceptionally trying times. I am looking forward to connecting with all of you on June 5th, although I am sure we would all prefer the previously planned in-person meeting in Washington, rather than yet another virtual interaction. I can’t help but reflect on our last meeting in San Diego in February, where a spirit of mutually shared goals prevailed, and COVID-19 seemed little more than a shadow on the horizon. Terri has assured me that the financial damage to the school and the challenges that lie ahead will be thoroughly catalogued elsewhere in this report. I will use the NIA’s space to provide some anecdotal information about the impact on individual instructors of both the pandemic and NOLS’ response to it, before offering a hopeful vision for the future.
The Human Factor
When I last reported to you, I had the honor of being one of just a handful of NOLS’ full-time, benefitted instructors. As I write today, I’ve been on hold with Wyoming Workforce Services for a full five hours, hoping to discuss unemployment insurance. I know from the recently held NIA Annual General Meeting, as well as from informal discussions with many recent colleagues, that I am not the only one who has had this experience. I’m aware of another former AFP (Annual Faculty Program) Instructor who now works in the kitchen at the Gannett Grill. Yet another has enrolled in graduate school, starting this summer. His return to the field or the classroom for NOLS seems unlikely, regardless of what transpires with the virus.
The decision by the Field Staffing Office to consider all summer contracts to be “on deck” offers, rather than an agreement to provide future work, combined with the strategy of putting off a final decision regarding the remaining July Expedition courses until the end of May, has created a climate of extreme uncertainty for field instructors. On the Wilderness Medicine side, the decision to evaluate each course on a case-by-case basis 30-45 days out, while sensible from a business point of view, has had much the same impact.
One senior instructor and program supervisor shared with me that he was initially delighted to have a course on the books out of NOLS Yukon this year. Once the Yukon program was cancelled for the summer, he felt lucky to be offered a contract out of NOLS Teton Valley, even if the replacement course was shorter than the original course. Subsequently, the Teton Valley base was shuttered for the season as well, pushing him significantly closer to seeking non-NOLS work for the summer. Another very senior instructor, a former Course Leader on Denali, is wondering if “banging nails” as an “unskilled laborer” for his brother’s home renovation project wouldn’t offer a more secure income for the summer than the “on deck” offer he currently holds from NOLS.
As far as in-town staff go, I’m thinking of a headquarters employee who lost her position in the Reduction in Force. As a new hire, she didn’t earn enough in any quarter of 2019 to qualify for traditional unemployment insurance. What she has been able to collect through the CARES Act amounts to less than $200 per month. More heart-wrenching still, is the predicament of many laid-off non-US workers at our international locations. Some of these individuals have worked at the school for decades, without receiving health insurance or other traditional benefits, and who won’t now receive any assistance from the US government. Indeed, depending on the country in which they live, they might not receive any government assistance at all.
We know from the 2017 Field Faculty Lifestyle Survey that slightly more than half of all field instructors (and no doubt many other NOLS employees as well) neither own nor rent any sort of home. This makes compliance with “stay at home” orders complex. An unknown number of NOLS employees don’t have health insurance. For individuals who have chosen to accept these vulnerabilities as the price to pay for being a NOLS employee, COVID-19 has shattered their tenuous position into many pieces. Not everyone will be able to put these pieces back together again in a way that allows them to return to work for NOLS when programming restarts.
The latest epidemiological models show the virus making a major impact at least through 2022. There seems to be an increasing consensus that there will be no return to anything resembling “normal” in any facet of life until a vaccine has been developed and widely distributed. Yet we have to maintain hope that at some point NOLS will begin to offer in-person programming again.
At the NIA, it is our fervent hope that when this does come to pass, we’ll all maintain an open mind. In many ways, NOLS will have to rebuild from the ground up. There is no need to make the mistakes of the past the blueprints for the future. When I imagine NOLS in 2023, I imagine a school organized not around an open-ended drive for growth, but rather around a deep understanding of what it means to truly be “student centered.” The students are the point, and the faculty and staff are how we impact, support, and interact with our students. For our system to serve our students, it must serve our employees as well.
In 2023, the NOLS I imagine will still have a modest differential between the amount of field courses offered in the summer versus at other times of the year; yet the pre-pandemic seasonal disparity of employment opportunities for field instructors will have been ameliorated by a new staffing model, in which instructors are either onboarded as AFP instructors with a guarantee of year-round work, or as summer instructors, explicitly contracted to work solely from mid-June until mid-August. The majority of Wilderness Medicine instructors work on a nine month contract matching the academic year, which leaves them free in the summer to pursue work for other organizations or lead NOLS field courses as summer instructors. The lower overall number of instructors leads us to efficiencies in training and supervision, and helps us to recapture some of the deeper and more meaningful sense of community that existed in earlier days, when NOLS was a smaller school.
Capping the number of courses offered in midsummer generates a deep waitlist that is then used to fill off-season openings. The resulting sense of scarcity elevates NOLS’ brand image, and before long we become known as “The Harvard of Outdoor Education.” We’re able to leverage this reputation to offer much more expensive courses. These allow us to recapture some of the market share we’ve lost to premium priced competitors. And, of course, this increased revenue is used to subsidize many more, much lower priced, offerings. This ultimately makes a NOLS education accessible to a much broader swath of society, fulfilling a long held pre-pandemic objective.
In this vision, a more common sense approach to field supervision prevails, in which senior instructors and those working shorter courses receive a simplified version of the SPE (Staff Performance Evaluation). Because of this efficiency, SPEs arrive in a timely manner, when the feedback is most useful, and fewer program supervisors are able to oversee a given number of courses. A leaner program staff helps create some of the economies needed for all employees to receive a living wage. A majority of NOLS employees have employer provided health insurance and retirement benefits.
The first draft of every staffing plan is computer generated. This allows for contracts to be offered days, rather than months, after the work request portal has closed, after the preliminary plan has been proofread by a few humans. Resultantly, instructors have greater certainty about their schedules sooner, leading to increased job satisfaction. The need for staffing coordinators is reduced, and many former staffing coordinators are able to return to course work, now that the majority of instructor positions offer year-round job security and benefits.
A system in which NOLS offers more remotely issued courses allows us to lower our carbon footprint by bringing our programming to where our students live, rather than vice versa, as we already do with Wilderness Medicine courses. This model also makes our operations more resilient in the face of the next pandemic or similar operational challenge. Increased hybrid on-line/in-person Wilderness Medicine offerings allow us to provide courses that are both shorter and cheaper, putting us back on an even footing with SOLO and other competitors.
Having made it through the pandemic together, we realize that we truly are all on the same team. Rank and file employees sit—yes, via Zoom, when necessary—on strategic planning committees and perhaps even on the Board of Trustees itself. And at every meeting, right before “Blue Sky,” we discuss how we’ll continue to make our systems more resilient, so that when the next pandemic level event inevitably comes, our human factors suffer so much less.
Ultimately, it’s not the specifics of this vision that matter, but the principles: student and staff centric, flexible and forward thinking, resilient, and based on mutual goodwill.