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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Paid and Unpaid
November 20, 2011 - 8:23pm

On the Green Schools listserv, last week, there was some small discussion regarding how to coordinate sustainability efforts conducted by student groups with those undertaken by remunerated students, whether work/study or internship.  Many campuses have paid student eco-reps, recycling coordinators and the like. The main concern expressed seemed to be structural -- since the efforts of work/studies and interns are generally overseen, while projects of co-curricular student groups are often less so, there might not be (usually isn't) an explicit mechanism for making sure that there's little duplication of effort and even less mutual interference.  It's a legitimate concern, and likely to become more so as sustainability-related student groups become more common, more numerous, more active and larger.

But, in the longer term, the question may change from how to keep these two types of effort -- and workers -- from stepping on each others toes.  It may change to a question of how to get them to play nice together.  Two situations I've dealt with in the past present very different pictures of how volunteers and paid workers can (but might not) cooperate.

When I was young -- younger even than the undergrads at Greenback -- I sang in a church choir.  The majority of choir members, like me, were volunteers.  We auditioned to become members, we felt this was something we wanted to do, it never occurred to us that we might be due any sort of remuneration.  At the same time, the choir (or, at least, the church's music department) did hire two paid soloists.  These women, both MFA voice students at a nearby music school, sang along with the rest of their respective sections, but also took featured parts as opportunities arose and sang, on occasion, solo pieces with piano or organ accompaniment.  These special duties set them somewhat apart, as did their semi-professional status and their considerable voice training.  The choir director didn't treat them much differently from the rest of us during choir rehearsal, but she worked with them in separate sessions, as well.  There was no conflict, no discord.

Then when I was somewhat older, a different situation arose.  I was a member of a volunteer fire company in a rural area.  The village had traditionally been surrounded by working farms, and farm workers had long been the backbone of the local fire department.  The problem was that the number of working farms was decreasing, the remaining farms were becoming more automated (and, thus, employing fewer hands), more and more local residents were commuting to work outside the first-due area (indeed, outside the county), and volunteer coverage during normal business hours was getting harder and harder to assure.  Eventually, two paid firefighters were hired to staff the firehouse Monday-Friday, from 8:00 until 5:00.  The paid personnel didn't do anything different from what the volunteers did.  The paid staff weren't exceptionally experienced, nor exceptionally well trained.  (Our company included some veterans who had taken lots of training and run lots and lots of calls.)  Soon, volunteer morale began to deteriorate.  Folks knew that they were doing hard, potentially dangerous work for free, while others -- no more qualified than themselves -- were getting a decent salary and government benefits for doing exactly the same job.  It's a common story, and it was the reason our fire company had resisted hiring paid help for as long as we could without endangering the community.

Based on these two experiences, I'm thinking that a combination of paid and volunteer workers can work well together if, and possibly only if, there's some difference between the two that the volunteers see as significant.  More experience.  More training.  More capabilities.  More responsibility.  Different tasks.  Different standards of performance.

If such differences don't (or aren't seen to) exist, then potential for conflict enters into the equation.  It may not be entirely rational, but what form of human interaction ever is?  It's real, and it's predictable.

So I'm wondering if, as unpaid student groups with sustainability-related concerns as their major foci proliferate and grow, whether it might not make sense to eliminate remunerated student positions with similar emphases.  The financial savings to campus operations won't be significant, but some money will likely get freed up.  And I'm wondering whether that money might not better be used to fund competitions the student groups can enter.  Or events the student groups can sponsor.  Or even pizza.

Not right away.  But maybe not that far in the future.


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