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Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary by Louis Hyman

Published in August of 2018.

How are the gig economy and the ascension of contingent faculty related?

What do term-appointed academic jobs, corporate consultants, and permanent temps have to do with each other?

Is there a relationship between corporate and university outsourcing?

All of these questions were on my mind as I read Louis Hyman’s excellent new book, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary. Hyman, an historian at Cornell, has done a superb job of contextualizing the current Uberfication of work within the larger narrative of employment.

Hyman’s traces the history of gig employment through two separate, but interrelated, trends. The first trend is the shift from companies employing full-time workers (perms) to large numbers of part-time and temporary workers (temps) in the postwar period.  The second trend is the ascension of the idea that workers should be a variable rather than a fixed cost, an idea pushed by both consultants and many academics.

The story of the rise of temps is traced from the 1948 founding and growth of Manpower Inc in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Manpower, and firms like Manpower, grew rapidly in the second half of the 20th century. They went from supplying short-term clerical workers to companies to support the work of regular staff, to transitioning to pitching “permanent temps” as a solution to high labor costs and inflexible employment regulations.

Running parallel to the story of Manpower and other temp agencies is the story of the rise of the consultants. Hyman provides a thorough history of McKinsey, perhaps the most influential (if not the largest) of the management consulting firms.

What McKinsey and other consultants accomplished in the past 40 years or so is to convince corporate America about the benefits of a lean and agile workforce. Companies were able to remain competitive by reducing labor costs through a combination of downsizing and outsourcing. The idea of a social compact between a company and its employees had no place in this new world of the lean corporation.

Today, the economic model that underpins higher education is much in doubt. The days of robust public support for public universities are unlikely to return. Colleges and universities are facing a triple threat of adverse demographics, rising costs (and stagnant incomes), and public disinvestment.

These macro trends are playing out in the composition of the academic workforce. Part-time and contingent faculty are on the rise. Staff are viewed as costs, rather than assets. The idea that a career in academia may not lead to wealth, but at least may be more stable than working at a for-profit, has become outdated.

College and university leaders enamored with the idea of the lean university would be wise to take a pause, and spend some time reading and discussing Temp. An unrelenting focus on reducing academic labor costs ,while maximizing academic labor flexibility, may have the unintended consequence of destroying quality. The commodification of postsecondary education is unlikely to result in more robust and resilient colleges and universities.

The story of the past, present, and future of the academic labor force is yet to be written. Reading Temp would be a good place to start for anyone interested in taking on that assignment.

How have you witness the academic labor force change over your career?

What do you see as the relationship between larger labor market trends and how academic jobs, both faculty and staff, are changing?

What are you reading?

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