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Students at Coconino Community College participate in an automotive technology class before the program was paused.

Larry Hendricks/Coconino Community College

A new automotive technology program at Coconino Community College, launched last fall, is on pause as campus leaders struggle to hire a full-time faculty member to keep it afloat.

Administrators say the lure of better-paying industry jobs coupled with the high cost of living in Flagstaff, Ariz., an increasingly popular tourist destination near the Grand Canyon, has repeatedly scared off faculty candidates for this position and others.

Nate Southerland, provost of Coconino Community College, said the college started the automotive technology program in response to local workforce needs. The college offered four automotive technology classes last fall and five courses in the spring, serving 46 students. A local Honda dealership let the program use its facilities at night.

“There’s been a demand for automotive techs in our area for a long time,” he said. “The dealerships and local service shops have a hard time hiring and retaining people because it’s expensive to live in our area, so their techs often leave for other parts of the state where it’s cheaper to live … If we can train people who already live here, they will stay here because they’re already in their housing and so on. This is a program really targeted at growing up a local workforce.”

The faculty member hired to lead the program decided to leave for another job in February, and administrators have struggled to fill the position ever since. An initial search yielded four candidates, who all declined the job, Southerland said. Someone accepted the position after a second search this summer but reversed course after he said he couldn’t find affordable housing in the area. Campus leaders then reached out to local dealerships in hopes of finding part-time instructors, with no luck. As the beginning of the new academic year approached, they canceled the five auto technology courses slated for this fall.

For some of the 26 students enrolled, “it was pretty traumatic,” Southerland said. “Several of them had made housing commitments here in Flagstaff and were in contracts that they were not going to be let out of. They were receiving financial aid, and with their reduced course load, it would impact their financial aid.”

Still, administrators haven’t given up. The automotive technology program is on the course schedule for spring. They plan to advertise the position as a 12-month contract with higher pay, rather than a nine-month faculty position. They also plan to reach out to local auto dealerships about a potential partnership in which the faculty member could work at a dealership over the summers to supplement his or her income.

Mainline service technicians in local auto shops can make more than $100,000 per year, but the college can’t offer that kind of money without causing tensions among its faculty members who generally make lower salaries, Southerland said. Arizona is among the states with the lowest appropriations to community colleges, and state funding only makes up about 10 percent of Coconino’s total budget. The last candidate for the automotive technology faculty job was offered approximately $80,000 for a nine-month contract.

Christal Albrecht, president of the college, said meeting the industry standard for pay just isn’t feasible.

“We do have some faculty members we pay a little bit more because they are hard to hire, but we would never be able to get near that,” she said. Meanwhile, second homes and Airbnb have made available housing expensive and scarce, “displacing people who would like to live and work here.”

Other career and technical education programs at Coconino have struggled to attract faculty candidates for the same reasons. For example, the college has been trying to launch a marine maintenance technology program to train students to maintain and repair boats for more than two years but hasn’t had a single faculty applicant. It also took three rounds of unsuccessful searches to find a faculty member for the construction technology program.

Southerland believes Coconino is experiencing a heightened version of a challenge facing community colleges nationwide, and the rise of remote work, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, isn’t helping.

“You have folks, particularly in the tech sector, choosing to live in beautiful, desirable, inexpensive areas and work from their home office for a company that’s located somewhere else,” he said. “Not only are we competing with local businesses for some of that talent, we’re competing against a global market who can hire that talent and let them stay home and work.”

A National Challenge

Coconino isn’t the only campus struggling to fill faculty openings. Community colleges across the country are having similar issues recruiting professors, particularly in career and technical education fields such as nursing, computer programming and automotive technology, where potential instructors can often find better pay outside academia.

“It’s something I hear about from almost every community college president I talk to as a problem one way or another right now,” said Nate Johnson, founder and principal consultant at Postsecondary Analytics, a firm that advises states, foundations and businesses on education and workforce policy. To attract and retain instructors in “high-wage, high-demand” fields, “they have to pay people at least the same amount that they could earn by doing the thing that they’re teaching.”

Johnson said in certain fields like nursing, faculty shortages are a perennial issue, while in other fields, faculty recruitment struggles rise and fall depending on the strength of the economy.

In general, the number of community college faculty members, full-time and part-time, dropped during the pandemic, according to an annual report by the American Association of University Professors. The report found that the number of community college professors fell from 308,567 in fall 2019 to 281,932 in fall 2020, an 8.6 percent drop. No other type of institution had such a steep overall decline, though it’s unclear how many professors left their positions for other jobs and how many retired or were let go.

Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, president of the Faculty Association of the California Community Colleges, said institutions also sometimes struggle to find career and technical education instructors because of outdated minimum degree requirements that are higher than industry standards. She also finds technical fields have less of a “consistent pipeline” to professor roles, unlike liberal arts programs that have pools of graduate students waiting to fill teaching positions.

Similar to Coconino, some California campuses have problems attracting faculty members because of high costs of living in their surrounding areas, as well.

For “many, many professions,” including community college instruction, “the cost of living in California, even in more rural areas or less desirable areas, is cost prohibitive compared to the salaries that are paid,” Brill-Wynkoop said.

These unfilled positions have ramifications for campuses. She noted that faculty shortages make it harder to launch new programs and keep existing ones afloat.

Community colleges can and do rely on part-time instructors, “but when it comes to building a program on a campus, you really need a full-time faculty member,” she said. “Not only do they have to be skilled in the discipline, but they also have to understand how to write curriculum and how to navigate a college governance system … and how to schedule classes and how to connect with four-years or possibly other employers. It becomes pretty complex to find a faculty member who can really spearhead a career technical education program.”

Meanwhile, students suffer the consequences when faculty vacancies force programs to pause.

“If they’re in the middle of a program and we have a staffing issue, then it could be detrimental to them even completing a program,” which in turn delays students starting to earn higher wages, Brill-Wynkoop said. “Often our career education programs are one or two years, and then it will place them into a job where they’ll be making good money, or at least money they can survive off of.”

Johnson noted that industry leaders and state lawmakers are currently relying on community colleges to train students to fill growing workforce shortages. But the abundance of job openings with decent pay, while positive news, makes it harder to find instructors to teach future workers, causing a “vicious cycle.” He worries community colleges struggling to start or continue programs that state lawmakers are demanding can lead to lower state funding and even more difficulty offering competitive salaries.

“That’s kind of the paradox for community colleges, because their mission, or what we’d hope they’d be able to do, is to give people the opportunity to fill high-wage jobs in those fields and help their communities and employers in their communities … but they themselves are subject to the same talent shortage.”

Meanwhile, community colleges are underfunded relative to four-year universities despite the fact that “we’re asking them to do more,” he added. “We’re asking them to change people’s socioeconomic trajectories. We’re asking for them to work in applied, high-tech, high-equipment-needs fields.”

Campus leaders at Coconino plan to launch a new partnership with other community colleges in Northern Arizona this October, in part to alleviate some of the stress of faculty shortages. Administrators are exploring ways colleges with understaffed programs could virtually connect students to programs at other campuses.

The partnership isn’t the solution for programs like automotive technology, which require an on-site instructor, but Southerland hopes the effort could at least help programs with an online component.

“We know our community needs these programs,” he said. “We want to provide these programs. We have built the structure to provide these programs. And we are deeply committed to being successful at serving our community with what they need. So, we’re going to do what it takes.”

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