Log in

NIA Report to the Board of Trustees, February 2017 - Lifestyle Survey Results

Friday, January 06, 2017 10:25 AM | Sean Williams

NIA Report

Sean Williams, NIA President

January 4, 2017

This report is devoted entirely to a presentation and very brief analysis of the results of our Field Faculty Lifestyle Survey, conducted from mid January to mid December 2016. As some of you may remember from my report a year ago, we conceived the Lifestyle Survey as a way to gather hard data about the financial, career, and lifestyle choices that NOLS faculty make in order to maintain and build their careers at NOLS. It is often said that working in the field is the best job in the world, in terms of the work itself. Creating the environment for exceptional student experiences, working with passionate, creative, and motivated colleagues, and being part of a truly unique global community makes for an incredible workday, every single day we are on contract. Among the faculty, it is also a truism that working for NOLS is quite difficult in terms of financial realities, job security, and career advancement. Anecdotal evidence and urban legends abound to demonstrate how this is so, and how individual instructors organize their lives with impressive ingenuity, in order to be able to work in the field. Our goal with this survey is to present a statistical picture of these realities. We would like to replace the myths and legends with data, and start to build a picture with numbers of how faculty members support the mission of the school, not just with their work itself, but with their willingness to arrange their lives for what is, by most standards, a very unusual job.

I present the basic survey responses in the next two pages, followed by a few highlights of data points that I find particularly interesting or surprising. The survey consisted of fourteen questions with multiple-choice answers, covering topics related to seniority and longevity at NOLS, income, job security, career advancement, and housing situation. We have the ability to filter results based on the answer to any one question. I hope to be able to do this in real-time during my presentation, if needed, and am also happy to provide any of this information by email in advance, or to share the data in a spreadsheet form or a Google Forms widget, if anyone wants to pull specific queries themselves. The basic presentation is also available on the NIA website at http://www.nolsinstructorassociation.org/bod/4507050

I have opinions about every question on the survey, which I will, mostly, refrain from sharing at this point. I am more interested in gathering information, and in hearing the responses and impressions of everyone at this meeting, in order to build a more nuanced and informed opinion for the future. There is some inevitable interpretation even in the form of the questions themselves, and in any analysis, but my goal is to keep this as objective as possible. We at the NIA believe that NOLS needs an accurate, data-driven understanding of the faculty’s experience working for the school, and we offer these survey results as a step towards that.

Analysis and highlights

I believe the large sample size for the survey, 41% of faculty, presents a statistically significant picture to represent the body of faculty as a whole. Considering that NOLS faculty work by contract and are not obliged to fill out random surveys when not at work, we were very happy with the response rate, and we received an enormous amount of positive feedback from respondents about the questions themselves and the NIA’s interest in gathering this data. What follows, again, is simply a few highlights that piqued my interest; feel free to make what you will of the data itself, and to take issue with any aspect of my interpretation below.

First, I am surprised by the large number of respondents with relatively little seniority (about one third had less than 30 field weeks, while measuring by years with the school, 27.1% had less than two years of experience and 52.4% had less than five years of experience). However, since more senior instructors are often offered more contracts, it is probably the case that more courses are worked by a smaller number of more senior instructors; for example, a single question data query reveals that for instructors with less than 15 weeks of experience, 63.5% worked 0-5 weeks last year, while of instructors with 100-150 weeks, 46.7% worked 5-15 weeks, 20% worked 15-25, and 10% worked more than 25 weeks in the last year.

A large percentage of faculty worked only a few courses per year: 36.9% worked 0-5 weeks, which is one standard month-long course or section or a shorter course, and another 43.2% worked 5-15 weeks. Only 4.2% worked more than 25 weeks per year, leaving only 15.7% to work 15-25 weeks in 2016. Again, statistically, more of the actual courses will be worked by the instructors who work a lot in a single year, or to put it in another way, more student days will be with instructors who work more than a few courses a year than these numbers indicate. Regardless, it is very clear that only a small proportion of NOLS faculty work in the field on anything like a full-time basis, or even on a significant part-time basis.1 This is born out by other responses; for example, 61.9% of respondents report that their current work balance at NOLS is less than 25 weeks per year, plus another job. Only 3.5% work more than 25 weeks per year, and only 0.7% work more than 25 weeks per year and also hold another job. Income statistics present the same picture: 54.9% of respondents receive only 1-25% of their yearly income from NOLS fieldwork, and only 6.9% of respondents earn all of their income from fieldwork.2 86.1% of respondents report that they have more than one job.

Despite the fact that most instructors work relatively little, and bring in a relatively small proportion of their income from NOLS fieldwork (only 26.3% receive more than 50% of their income from fieldwork), a higher proportion, 41.1%, report NOLS fieldwork as their top work priority, with another 45.3% rating NOLS as their second work priority. It seems that NOLS’ importance in many faculty member’s lives and career priorities significantly outweighs its contribution in terms of amount of work or income. 

We included several questions about housing, non-job income, and total annual income, in order to build a picture of how other financial arrangements contribute to the yearly maintenance of our “statistical instructor.” Clearly, even making conservative spending choices and willingly adopting a simple lifestyle, a certain amount of money is required to maintain a person throughout the year, and since most faculty members work so little for NOLS, only a small part of that money comes from NOLS in most cases. A common technique among faculty members to reduce spending is to eliminate what, for most households, is the largest yearly expense: housing. Indeed, 38.9% of respondents either lived at NOLS branches, camped, and traveled, or stayed rent-free with friends or family last year. Only 27.3% owned their own home, and of those, rather impressively given the young average age of NOLS instructors, almost a third owned without a mortgage.3


1  What constitutes “full-time” fieldwork is unclear. Annual Faculty Position instructors must work 25 weeks to qualify for group health insurance at the ¾ time rate. Eligibility for retirement contributions, which begins at 200 weeks in the field, is calculated using a 10-hour workday, which would equate to about 28.5 weeks per year; a more realistic 14 hour workday would equate to 20 weeks per year.

2  Respondents were asked to consider in-town or Wilderness Medicine work as separate jobs.  13.6% of respondents combine fieldwork with in-town or Wilderness Medicine work, and 8.4% combine both of these with a third job in addition.

3  This seems to be a little higher than the national average, which itself is boosted significantly by retirees, of whom there were presumably very few in this survey.

An impressive 56.7% of respondents enjoyed income from non-job sources such as investments, gifts, family support, or living in a rent- and mortgage-free home. This is an especially notable number, considering that this type of income is typically under-reported. While 17.3% of respondents received less than $1,000, 17.6% enjoyed $5,000 - $25,000, and 5.3% benefited from more than $25,000. Even $5,000 is quite significant, considering that the upper levels of attainable income from fieldwork are in the $20,000s or low $30,000s. This combined 22.9% of respondents would likely have an easier time living with an unpredictable income source such as NOLS fieldwork, while still feeling secure and enjoying some of the consumption and spending habits expected by most Americans. They may also have the freedom to avoid committing to other jobs in order to take last-minute NOLS contracts, thereby taking advantage of opportunities and advancing their NOLS careers more rapidly.

One way or another, an impressive proportion of faculty manage to live on very little money, wherever it comes from: 34.7% have an annual income of $10,000 - $20,000, another 22.9% rely on $20,000 - $30,000, and 7.6% squeak by below the poverty level with less than $10,000. 8.7% are comfortably above $50,000, and 26% are squarely aimed at the middle class, with $30,000 - $50,000.

The take-home point from these income responses, to me at least, is that our “statistical instructor” is simultaneously creative, willing to make sacrifices, and lucky, in finding the financial support and strategy to make a NOLS career possible. Whether it comes in the form of free housing, no housing, simple living, family wealth, or a lower priority second career that produces more income, all of this constitutes an indirect form of support for the NOLS mission. Our statistical instructor also pulls all this together despite being in a state of some confusion about his or her career: 31.6% report struggling to build a long-term career, and 20.1% report having no idea where their careers are going. The good news is that, adding the struggling 31.6% to the 33.7% who believe their NOLS career is going well and has excellent long-term prospects, and leaving aside the 14.5% who see NOLS fieldwork as only a short-term interest, 65.3% see themselves to be in for the long haul with NOLS. 29% hope to work for NOLS for their entire working life, and another 16% are going for at least another 10 years. However, if the past is any indication, they may change their mind: only 17.7% of respondents reported working for NOLS for more than ten years already, and according to Director of Field Staffing Marco Johnson, only about 20 field faculty out of 694 total, or 2.8%, have worked in the field for more than 25 years.

These are the points, with, hopefully, a minimum of interpretation, that seem most relevant to me. Please feel free to get in touch if you would like me to pull any specific queries (it only takes a few seconds) or if you would like the data in a spreadsheet, or access to the Google Form in order to make the queries yourself. We are eager to continue the survey in 2017, and I would very much appreciate any feedback. We could change the questions slightly, add new questions, eliminate questions that don’t seem useful, or use a different surveying and data analysis tool. I welcome any suggestions.

I look forward to seeing you all in San Antonio, and especially to learning from anyone who has more statistical skills and training than me about how to improve this survey in the future and make the data more useful and accessible. Thanks for taking the time to read this longer-than-usual NIA report and for being willing to take a hard look at the numbers.

Sean Williams



Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software