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Field Weeks: Still the Best System for Seniority?

Thursday, January 21, 2016 2:26 PM | Dave Durant (Administrator)




Please note that these are my opinions only, and don’t represent an articulated NIA position.  There is no consensus amongst the Board or Membership of the NIA on this thorny issue.  This article was submitted for inclusion in the February 2016 NOLS Staff Newsletter.

* * * * *

It’s the second to last night of a backpacking course, and the students are on ISGE.  Conversation in camp turns to work.  My co-instructor, who is working his first course, makes eye contact with me across the campfire.

“How many field weeks do you have?”

I let out an audible sigh.  “Well, it’s complicated.”

“What could be so complicated about remembering the number of weeks you’ve spent in the field?”

“Well, for starters, the number of ‘field weeks’ I have doesn’t include all of the time that I’ve spent in the field with NOLS.  It doesn’t include my student course, or my instructor course, or any of the four field seminars I’ve taken since then.  I’ll have 88 weeks at the end of this contract, but if all of my field time were counted, I’d be somewhere north of 100 weeks, which would bring a nice pay bump.”

He mulls this information over for a bit, staring into the fire.  Then I can see him counting on his fingers, and I realize that he’s applying this same logic to him own situation.

“Huh.  This is my first course.  So I’ll have about four weeks.  But I took a full semester as a student, which definitely made me into a better outdoor educator,”

“That is the point of what we do,” I agree.

“…but then I took the Sea Kayak IC, so I had to take the Paddlers’ Hiking Seminar before I could work this course.  So if you counted all of my field time, I’d be somewhere around 22 weeks.  That’s a lot closer to 30.” 

“Mm-hmm,” I agree.

“Well, I suppose it all makes sense if you accept that we only get weeks for the time we spend teaching,” he adds.

“Well, not really,” I say.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we get weeks for the time we spend briefing and de-briefing.  And we get weeks for time spent traveling.  For example, some Canyons courses out of the RM spend three full days on the bus.  Work two of those in a year, and bam, that’s another ‘field’ week.  And that’s not all.  On Winter Courses out of the Teton Valley, instructors get field weeks for days they spend sleeping at the branch and free skiing at Targhee while their students are in lessons.”

“Well, you wouldn’t want those things to stop counting towards your seniority, would you?”

“Not really,” I say.  

“But if those activities, which don’t take place in the field can count towards weeks, it be nice if all of the time I spent actually teaching did too.”

Now I’ve lost him.  “What’dya mean?”

“Well, I have 40 weeks spent teaching NOLS courses that don’t count towards my weeks at all.”

“How can that be?” 

“16 WFRs, six W-EMTs, three WFAs, three WFR Re-certs… you do the math.”

“Well, those don’t count,” he says.

“It’s hard to see why not,” I say, grinning and shaking my head.  “They are NOLS courses.  They’re advertised in the View Book and on the website, and my paycheck for these courses says NOLS on it.  Plus, teaching these courses makes me a way better teacher, something my students in the field benefit from, not to mentioned much better equipped to deal with medical emergencies in the field.  It’s particularly interesting when you consider that most NOLS courses are Wilderness Medicine courses.  That means that NOLS instructors - cause NOLS Wilderness Medicine instructors are NOLS instructors, after all - don’t get any seniority for most of the courses they teach.”

“Wait, wait, wait.  There are more Medicine courses than Expedition courses?”  

“There were 832 Wilderness Medicine courses in FY2015.  I don’t actually know how many field courses there were.  But I can tell you that there were 4,698 students in the field and 18,804 in the classroom.”

“Ok, whatever.   NOLS Wilderness Medicine has it’s own way of calculating seniority anyway, right?”

“Well, sort of.  At NOLS Wilderness Medicine you can get a raise based on merit, and based in part on how many of a certain type of course you have led.”

“So, what’s the problem, then?”

“Well, one problem is that we have all sorts of field courses that require a Wilderness Medicine instructor, and not enough WM instructors who are willing to work in the field to be able to staff them easily.  When you take a WFR Lead who makes $197 a day while they stay in hotels and eat in restaurants and ask them to camp for $78 while eating grits and couscous, it’s no wonder that it’s a non-starter.  The least we could do would be to recognize the amount of teaching they’ve already done for the school.”

“Wait a sec.  WM instructors make $197 a day?”

“Well, Lead Instructors do, but that’s a conversation for another time.  This isn’t just a Medicine versus Expedition thing.”

“Sure sounds like it to me.”

“Well, there are NOLS Custom Education classroom courses that don’t accrue field weeks either.  In fact, there are NOLS Custom Education seminars for field instructors, like the FADs, LEADS, and iLEADS, where the instructors don’t get weeks.  Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s a NOLS Custom Ed course called the Robertson Scholars Leadership Expedition where the instructors sleep in cabins and lead day hikes, but do get field weeks.”

“Ok, ok, I got it,” he says excitedly.  “How about this.  If you’re getting paid to teach for NOLS, then that day should count towards the seniority system we use to determine pay for field courses.  Since most courses we teach aren’t in the field, we’ll have to call this something other than ‘field’ weeks.  And since it won’t be ‘weeks in the field’ anymore, then it won’t seem like you should get credit for time you spent in the field while not working, like student courses, ICs, and seminars.”

“I’m smelling what you’re stepping in,” I acknowledge, “but there’s just one problem.  Well, two problems, actually.  There are at least two instances where someone is definitely teaching for NOLS, but isn’t getting paid.”


“When you aide a technical course, you’re still teaching ES, leadership, etc., but you’re not being paid a daily wage if you’re aiding more than one section per semester.  And when you’re working as an instructor in training, you’re not getting paid, either.”

“Do aides and IITs get field weeks?”

“Yup.  Which is as it should be,” I say.

“Well, how about NOLS just pays aides and IITs?”

“And interns, too, while we’re at it.  If you work, you get paid.  But let’s focus on solving one problem at a time.”

“Ok, what do you suggest?”

“How about this.  If you’re on contract, you get weeks.  Everyone continues to get weeks for the things they do already, whether that’s teaching in the field, briefing, traveling while on contract, aiding or IITing.  You’d also get weeks for teaching classroom courses.  Since these are weeks you get for time spent on contract, we’ll just call them “contract weeks.’  Field weeks will be a thing of the past, like… AOL.  Or leaded gasoline.”

“It’s an elegant compromise, Dave.  Since they won’t be ‘field’ weeks anymore, it won’t make sense to say student courses, ICs, and seminar participation should count.  There’s just one problem.  What’s in it for me, as a field instructor who doesn’t work in the classroom?”

“Well, for starters, you’re certainly not any worse off than you were already.  You don’t lose any weeks, which would be a result of some ways of dealing with this problem that we can imagine.  The plus side is that now you’re incentivized to become a classroom instructor.  Take that ITC and start teaching WFRs or WFAs.  Now you’ll not only be more likely to get offseason work on WMRs and classroom courses, but you’ll also make it to that next pay bump faster.  You’ll also never have to take a WFR Re-cert again, as long as your working for NOLS Wilderness Medicine.  Actually, you could get paid to teach them!  Those sound like steps towards a more sustainable career, to me.”


* * * * *

What do you think about field weeks as the system for measuring seniority?  E-mail me at david.r.durant@gmail.com.  I’ll synthesize responses and pass them on, anonymously, to the administration.  

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