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Report to the Board of Trustees, February 2020

Monday, January 13, 2020 10:28 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

NIA Report

 David Durant

President, NOLS Instructor Association

February 2020

NIA Mission

To communicate and advocate instructor views, and to work within the NOLS community to promote the school’s mission and values.

A Long Term Project 

As I mentioned to you a year ago in Houston, the NIA Board, in consultation with some very senior NOLS employees, spent 2018-2019 crafting an in-depth Position Paper calling on NOLS to set the long-term strategic goal of a living wage for all employees, and a middle class income for managers.  Several trustees greeted this idea with great curiosity, and a request was made for a summary of this document.  I’ll present that summary here, and the full paper will be available in San Diego.  The full paper includes citations as well as a detailed discussion of how we arrived at our figures.

The Case for a Living Wage

NOLS is 55 years old, and has been hugely successful in fulfilling its mission to date.  But the world around us is changing, and if the school is to continue to thrive until the end of the century and beyond, then it must take seriously the impacts to excellent student experiences caused by inadequate compensation, lack of job security, and a changing outdoor jobs market.  

Long term strategic thinking is not new to NOLS.  As a school, we’ve already made commitments to responsible financial management, protecting our outdoor classrooms, and diversity, equity, and inclusion that will help safeguard our future into the next century.  With admiration and support for the long-term thinking of NOLS’ leadership to date, we believe that NOLS must take a similarly bold and forward-looking approach to providing stable and gainful employment for employees.  We further believe that these successes in the realms of financial management and inclusion can serve as blueprints for the sort of strategic mindset and ethical leadership needed to solve the thorny issues raised by a workforce laboring, for the most part, without the benefit of a living wage.

With more than $110,000,000 in assets, NOLS is no longer struggling.  Its ability, and thus its responsibility as a business, to provide a living wage to its employees has changed.  Paul Petzoldt used to say that working for NOLS is not a real job and that instructors should stay with the school for a while, and then move on. We believe that for NOLS to survive another 55 years, we must adopt a very different philosophy: that working for NOLS is, in fact, a “real job.”

In modern times, the day-to-day reality for the vast majority of NOLS employees is grim.  Almost all faculty members, and many in-town staff, work with no guarantee of even short-term future employment.  Indeed, as an “at will” employer, NOLS has absolutely no obligation to honor its “contracts” with faculty. The first line of a faculty Work Agreement reads: “I understand that NOLS may terminate this agreement and my employment at any time, without notice, for any reason.”  The negative impact this has on faculty morale cannot be overstated.  

When faculty do work, it is at a daily rate significantly below the industry median, and almost exclusively on an irregular basis with no hope of providing an adequate yearly income.  In FY18, the average field faculty pay rate was $123/day.  In 2016, 38.9% of field faculty did not rent or own their own living space, and 31.6% reported that they were struggling to make progress on their NOLS career.  Only 20% worked more than 15 weeks.  Perhaps most tellingly, a majority of field instructors, 56.4%, reported supplementing their NOLS income with income from a non job source, e.g. family support.

For a wide range of reasons, senior instructors observe that expectations have grown, and instructors in the field work more hours per day and teach more curriculum now than they did 15 or 20 years ago.  We estimate that the typical instructor on the typical course works about 14 hours per day.  This means that an instructor would need 20 weeks of work to achieve a typical 2,000 hour American work year.  According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, the average living wage across NOLS’ U.S. locations would be $10.84/hour.  For an instructor working 14 hour days in the field for 20 weeks, this would equate to a daily wage of $155.  We believe this should be the floor for starting wages at NOLS.   

NOLS is losing top-tier instructors to a burgeoning outdoor industry that increasingly offers greater job security and higher compensation.  One example is the Chadwick School in California, where the starting wage in 2019 was more than 300% of NOLS’s midsummer starting wage.  As senior faculty choose to pursue more lucrative opportunities elsewhere, more of our courses are staffed by less experienced instructors. The pressure for promotion due to staffing needs, rather than based on performance and qualifications, grows. Our marketing claims that our instructors are the best, highest trained, most experienced professionals in the industry ring hollow.  Just because we started first, way back in 1965, doesn’t mean we will always be at the top.  We have to work to stay there.  

Simultaneously, excellent potential instructors stay away from NOLS because they fear low pay and slow advancement.  For most in-town staff the situation is similar. At least for U.S. positions, every manager at NOLS seems to have difficulty hiring due to non-competitive wages and salaries. 

The time may be coming when it is no longer strategically advisable for NOLS to say to most of its employees, implicitly or explicitly, that they should not expect to earn a reasonable living. The excellent performance of faculty to date is an indicator that the attrition of experienced instructors and the quality of incoming instructors is not yet an acute problem. It is, rather, a persistent reality, one that affects our ability, as an institution, to maintain the ever-receding goal of excellence, and one that may presage a slow decline in our effectiveness and standing in the industry. It is not a crisis, but a strategic question. Where does NOLS want to be in 2025, and on what trajectory for 2040? 

Addressing these Challenges

In order to address these challenges, and to preserve NOLS as the “leader in outdoor education” until the end of the century and beyond, the NIA calls for:

  • A living wage of $155/day for all entry level faculty and staff.
  • A middle class income of $218/day for Senior Faculty Level I and up and Wilderness Medicine lead instructors.
  • A middle class income with a minimum of $15.25/hour, or $30,519/year if salaried, for program supervisors and for location and HQ positions that manage other employees. 
  • All dollar amounts are in 2020 dollars and would be adjusted for inflation and cost of living in perpetuity.

Furthermore, we call upon NOLS’ Trustees and Executive Team members to act on these recommendations this year, by setting these as goals to be accomplished by the completion of the next strategic plan.  While meeting these goals would certainly require an aggressive focus on budgeting, expense management, and fundraising, we have confidence that all of these skills are well within the competence of NOLS’ Executive Team and Trustees.  It is worth noting that these goals may not be as lofty as they initially seem.  Indeed, pay rates for some employees are already very close to these thresholds.  For example, in 2020 the starting wage for Wilderness Medicine instructors is $144/day, and the wage for lead Wilderness Medicine instructors starts at $216/day.

We are proposing goals of over 50% wage growth for a large percentage of NOLS’ faculty and in-town staff. We do not know what percentage of NOLS’ payroll budget would be affected, since the minority of employees who already enjoy higher pay rates take up a higher per-capita percentage of the payroll, but we will take a ballpark, and probably conservative, estimate of 50%. A 50% increase in 50% of wages paid would require a 25% increase in the overall payroll budget.

As a final note, I wish to emphasize, heavily, that no current NIA board member stands to benefit substantially from these proposed changes.  We at the NIA believe that four to five years from now would be an ambitious, realistic time frame for these minimum standards for a living wage and lower middle class income to be met.  If these goals were set now, the vast majority of current senior NOLS faculty would feel the beginnings of real progress only towards the twilight of their own NOLS careers.

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