Is a job in Education sheltered from the market?
January 23, 2008 3:11 AM   Subscribe

I have just been offered a staff position at a large University of California campus. Given that my current job is with a small (employees<15) consulting company in the technology field, and given the current national (and global) economic situation; is a UC job more likely to be stable in the next 5 years when compared to one in a small tech company? Also, what's it like to work at a UC?

Is the UC system subsidized by the government enough at the state and federal level to make it as secure as a government job?
Will a big CA educational institution weather the inevitable financial storm comparatively better than other sectors?
What is it like to work for a big UC school?
The benefits are good, but is working for an academic institution as political and as slow moving as people say?
What have you experienced as a UC employee?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I worked at a UC for a 4-5 years, but the feeling I got was that a lot of the people there had been there for ages. I started as a student employee, then was hired on when I graduated. Some of the other people in my department (an IT department) had done the same thing as I did, but 15-30 years ago. My impression was that it was very hard to fire people, and that most of the financial problems faced by the UC would be met with raises in student fees rather than cuts in services or employees. But again, I only worked there for a few years so it's hard to tell.
posted by beerbajay at 3:54 AM on January 23, 2008

I don't work for a UC but I do work for a public university. It's veyr hard for HR to get rid of people, and it's very very slow moving compared to the private sector. And yes, political. I'd say your new job is probably fairly secure.
posted by miss tea at 4:45 AM on January 23, 2008

Public universities, for the most part, are sheltered from the market. Cuts or slowdowns in the economy are usually reflected in smaller operating budgets, not smaller staffs. Private universities are more likely to see a hit in declining donations and/or enrollments, which have a much more significant impact on the bottom line.

But yeah, politics, bureaucracy and "state employee mentality" are the downsides.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:01 AM on January 23, 2008

I worked at a UC from 2000 to 2005, during which California had some serious economic woes, and I don't remember anyone getting laid off. I never got a pay increase, but it beat being as spectacularly unemployed as some of my compatriots were.
posted by the dief at 5:13 AM on January 23, 2008

My experience at a large UC campus is the same as the others - secure employment, much slower to make changes than a business would. Technology folks in particular have nothing to worry about, layoff-wise; there are always plenty of internal job openings.

As always, the specific person you're working for makes a huge amount of difference, not only in terms of how well you get along, but also with regards to comfort with a particular rate of change. (And the more that change requires sign-off by other departments or higher-level individuals, the slower the rate of change; at UC campuses, departments can often be almost independent fiefdoms, so cross-departmental initiatives can be very, very slow to happen.)
posted by WestCoaster at 6:45 AM on January 23, 2008

As is probably the case with most major public universities, the UC system keeps 1) increasing the number of students enrolled in the school while simultaneously 2) bumping up student fees. Therefore, the need for services is increasing and there is always money coming in. I wouldn't worry about the job being in jeopardy any time soon.
posted by puritycontrol at 6:45 AM on January 23, 2008

nthing what everyone else is saying. My wife worked for UCSB from 98 through 2005. She was there during the rolling blackouts. She was there when mud-slides cut off the 101 for a week. (Everyone got paid time off until the highway reopened). In all that time, I don't recall anyone ever getting fired. Even student employees who showed up late/drunk were encouraged to look elsewhere rather than given the boot.
Be prepared for a much slower work pace. It will be jarring coming from the private sector. On the plus side, you can wear flip flops to work.
posted by Eddie Mars at 6:56 AM on January 23, 2008

There's probably more stability but don't get too lulled. I was quite surprised to get hired on to the state university system and be told I'd be under a probationary period for a year with reviews at 3 and 6 months. Perhaps UC is less progressive than Virginia has gotten and perhaps it's toothless, but it's a definite change from when I last worked in higher ed about fifteen years ago.

Another consideration is that training is often one of the first things to go when economic conditions get tight, both from corporate budgets and from personal ones. So education isn't entirely immune to the welfare of the economy.

All that said, if you think you would enjoy working in education, go for it. I love being back in the higher ed world - the culture has its craziness like any other industry but for the most part you're working with people who value intelligence and learning, you have access to a tremendously diverse group of people, and for me at least I can feel like I'm a part of something Important.
posted by phearlez at 7:28 AM on January 23, 2008

The trade off for this stability is of course that you get paid a lot less than you would in the private sector for the same work.
posted by beerbajay at 8:41 AM on January 23, 2008

The trade off for this stability is of course that you get paid a lot less than you would in the private sector for the same work.

Not automatically true. I've seen the salary ranges associated with various job grades at UCLA, for example, and they are higher than the salary ranges for comparable jobs I've seen in both the private and the non-profit sector.
posted by scody at 8:49 AM on January 23, 2008

I haven't worked at a UC, but I was a student at one. In light of California's major financial deficit for the coming fiscal year, the Governator has proposed a 3.4% decrease in funding to the UC system. The CSU and UC systems are often the victims of budget cuts in California. I know this because tuition at state universities keeps rising to help cover the funding cuts. That being said, I was close to many of my professors and I never heard of anyone getting the boot because of funding cuts.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:50 AM on January 23, 2008

The trade off for this stability is of course that you get paid a lot less than you would in the private sector for the same work.
That's not always true - it depends on what area you work in. I currently work at UCSF in a nonacademic/non-research capacity. I think our campus is quite different from the others because of its focus on health sciences and the fact that there's no undergrad program but like the others have said, everything takes FOREVER to get done, the bureaucracy is massive but it really is quite stable. We actually don't get a significant percentage of our budget from the state but rely much more on federal grants and other income. I'd have to say that compared to the private sector, where I worked in a similar capacity for many years before going to the public sector, this is the most low-stress and stable job I've ever had. I never work overtime and I don't take the slightest bit of work home with me ever - not even mentally. At 5pm I can walk out the door and leave it all behind. And also, compared to work as a consultant in the private sector, I do feel much much better about the work that I'm doing. It seems much more clearly in the public interest and I get a lot of satisfaction from that.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 8:53 AM on January 23, 2008

The stability question depends totally on the funding source for your job. Many UC employees are on "soft" (i.e., grant-funded) money, especially if they work as part of a research unit. Those employees get laid off all the time as grants expire and don't get renewed for whatever reason.

Other employees are funded through general UC pots of money and those are called "hard" funded, meaning they won't go away, although the money isn't quite as "hard" and certain as it used to be. Ask about the funding source and the likelihood of the position continuing through budget cuts.

When considering the salaries of UC versus other places, remember to look at the benefits package. UC has an amazing pension plan and terrific benefits.

As to your question of what it's like to work at a UC, it *totally* depends on what department you're working in and what your functions are. There are some amazingly dedicated people at UCs and others who are totally obsessed with trivia and narcissism and turf wars. In that way, I think it's probably like any other large institution. If you're working with academics, the politics and turf wars can get tiring, but, my experience was that as long as you like your boss and he/she likes you, working at a UC can be a grat experience.
posted by jasper411 at 9:33 AM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Having been a grad student at a UC campus for 2 years, I can say with certainty that most of the staff (whom I'm friends with) hate their jobs or are there until they turn grey and start molding. They're either working at the UC because they can't do better or because fear of change propels them to a relatively stable environment. Even, especially grant-funded employees shift around my building/department as the money changes hands- no one gets fired who wants to stay on, they just move to a new lab/office.

There are some wonderful staff and there are some of the most miserable excuses for human beings I've ever encountered. When I start getting solicitation notices from the campus, I have a letter worked to to explain why precisely I'll *never* give the UC system money and how directly it correlates to interactions I've had with the staff (not the ones I work with, a few departments on campus are truly evil).

I occasionally fantasize about becoming fabulously wealthy and offering to give it all the the UC system if they allow me to reorganize a few of the departments- not going after people, but changing the policy that allows such genuinely mean-spirited people to thrive in the UC system. Totally off track of course.

Anyway, to me the UC system is like a series of old and clunky companies connected rather haphazardly. You'll find yourself frustrated by the circuitous way things get done and appalled by the amount of waste built into the system. But it can be really fun if you have a fun department. Some of my friends will be here for a few more decades, no doubt, and they're very happy.
posted by arnicae at 10:00 AM on January 23, 2008

My father works at a UC. It has been ridiculously hard for him to terminate bad employees, so I imagine that anyone who does a good job is even more safe! They're very bureaucratic.
posted by radioamy at 12:10 PM on January 23, 2008

I worked at a UC for 4-5 years. My anecdotal experiences:

During the years that I worked there, not a single person was fired from our 200-employee department. One of the employees was engaged in a game of "anonymous" email harassment of another employee and received no disciplinary action at all. One person had been fired in the previous year for making a bomb threat, but that was a unique case.

The UC system is facing serious budget cuts in the upcoming year and is planning on decreasing enrollment by as many as 5,000 students. However, there were budget cuts when I worked there too. When departments were downsized (which happened), employees were transferred to other departments. No one was laid off. Ever.

Most non-managerial employees are represented by a union. Membership is not optional. My union rep was sympathetic and followed up on complaints, but the union is toothless compared to the university, and it rarely makes any progress toward resolving complaints.

Quality-of-life-wise, your experience there will depend ENTIRELY on the department that employs you, not on the university as a whole. Each department has its own unique culture; there's not much of an overall institutional culture. (Or at least there wasn't at the UC I worked for.)

If you get hired at a UC, you can most likely retire from one -- provided that you aren't stealing computers or physically assaulting your coworkers. It's ridiculously hard to get fired, and the chances of getting laid off are also practically nil. This means you will be working with a lot of folks who wouldn't pass muster in almost any other organization, and that can be very frustrating. However, there are very few jobs more "stable" (also read as "suffocating") than a UC job.

I hated it, but the department I worked for really, really sucked. The good news is that once you're hired, you can apply for jobs in other departments. Many of those jobs give priority to current UC employees.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:32 PM on January 23, 2008

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