• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The Incumbent Advantage

Who gets a foot in the door?

April 6, 2015

In politics, the incumbent advantage refers to officeholders who have an easier time winning elections than their opponents, precisely because they’re already in office.  Time in office brings with it name recognition, connections, and a track record. Those aren’t unalloyed goods, necessarily, but if you haven’t done something horrifying, they tend to help.

Something similar holds in workforce development programs.

I go to plenty of employer advisory boards. The feedback from employers is consistent: the major complaint they have about new hires is in “soft skills.” Some of those are quasi-academic, like the ability to write clearly, but some are more basic than that: showing up on time reliably, knowing how to adapt to workplace culture, being professional while dealing with unsatisfied bosses or difficult customers. People are often hired for technical skills, and later fired or written off on the basis of soft skills.  If you can’t work with people, you’ll never get promoted beyond the help desk.

Savvy colleges have figured that out, and used it to fine-tune their workforce development programming.

Workforce programming can be a way for people on the margins to find their way in, and often, it is. But it’s also increasingly a way for people on the lower rungs of companies to make their way up, precisely because of soft skills.

We ask employers to identify workers whose soft skills are already strong -- they’re reliable, relatable, and reasonable -- but who don’t have the technical skills or credentials for the next level up.  That’s where we come in.  

When that approach works, it’s a clean win across the board. The employer gets (or gets to keep) a valuable employee who has already proven trustworthy. The employee gets a higher level job, presumably with more money, and sets herself up for more opportunities. The college gets enrollment.  Everybody wins.

College for America uses the incumbent advantage in two ways. It goes for the clean win, like we do, but it also uses cohorts of incumbents to get around the chronic problem of online attrition. When your cohort comes preassembled, you don’t have to worry as much about cohort entropy. There’s already an external, “real life” glue holding the group together. I have to admit being impressed by that.

As with elections, the incumbent advantage in employment isn’t always good. Getting the first foot in the door can be tough. Too rigid a succession pipeline can lead to a sort of provincialism. And the frustration of being the sacrificial lamb candidate for a search in which someone internal has been effectively pre-annointed is real.

Still, to the extent that workforce programs help entry-level employees with good work habits make their way into better positions, it’s hard to object. We’ve found particular success with it when the incumbent employees are bilingual; that skill is often rare at higher levels. When a bilingual employee moves up, she moves quickly.  From a social justice standpoint, that’s another clean win.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen particularly clever uses of the incumbency advantage?


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