A College Crowd


California is desperate for public school teachers, but in the community college system, the problem is the reverse: Underemployment of teachers is rampant, and more than 100 job seekers may line up for a single opening.

It’s nothing new in the world of academia, where many young PhDs and M.A.s fresh out of graduate school have faced daunting competition for university faculty jobs for many years now. But some new graduates are surprised to find the same problem exists even at the vast community college level.

Now some college system leaders are noticing that the crunch is starting to ease. A long-awaited wave of faculty retirements has begun to swell, they say, and system finances have improved.

But don’t try to tell that to Joseph Meyer, a part-time political science instructor who has been looking for full-time work in the community college system for about six years.


Like many job seekers, Meyer has heard such predictions before, and they haven’t panned out. Each year, he says, there have been four or five openings statewide for full-time community college professors in his field. Each time he applies, he finds himself competing with about 150 applicants.

“Part of the job application now is to fill out a card which will be your rejection letter,” he said. “It’s hard to stay positive.”

Thousands of job seekers are registered with the state’s community college job registry, which now has listings for about 150 full-time faculty positions statewide.

With so many people competing for so few jobs, a few additional opportunities are unlikely to ease the rampant frustration.

Not every field is overcrowded. A few disciplines taught in community colleges have teacher shortages, mostly technical fields such as nursing or computer sciences, where highly educated people are coveted by private industry.

Math and certain science jobs also are said to draw fewer applicants, although this is by no means universal. One chemistry teaching applicant told of recently competing against 200 other people for a full-time faculty job.

But the worst glut, college administrators say, is in the humanities and social sciences--especially English, history and psychology. Full-time generalist English jobs are especially competitive, routinely drawing between 80 and 200 applicants.

Some college leaders say the system has benefited from this buyers’ market, which has allowed campuses to hire top-notch people.

But at the department level, where much of the hiring work is done, the huge labor pool is a mixed blessing.

“For a generalist comparative literature instructor, I got 190 applications for two positions,” said Robert Frew, English dean at American River College in Sacramento.

“It’s pretty grueling. It takes half an hour to 40 minutes just to read each application.”

205 Applicants, One Job

Tom Lew, dean of humanities at El Camino College in Torrance, said the burden has eased a little since the 1980s, when he once had the unforgettable experience of evaluating 205 applications for one English job.

Now, he said, the college gets a more manageable number of applicants, only about 125 for such openings.

The worst part, said Frew, is not selecting candidates for jobs, but rejecting scores of other qualified applicants.

Many job applicants already teach in the community system part time. Since part-timers often apply for jobs at colleges where they work, colleges end up rejecting droves of their own employees for each job--an uncomfortable situation all around. “It takes years to get over it sometimes,” Frew said.

However difficult for administrators, the biggest burden falls on job seekers, who struggle to make a living while enduring repeated disappointments.

Lin Fraser has been working as a part-time English teacher in the Sacramento area while looking for full-time work for eight years.

She has applied for as many as 60 jobs over the years and gotten two interviews, she said. There have been years when, discouraged and weary of rejection, she stopped applying for long periods because she said, “It’s too damned depressing.”

“There is this line that says, ‘If you are good, there will be a place for you.’ We all want to believe that, but . . . " she trailed off.

While many job hunters relay anecdotes of colleagues who have jumped ship to work in public schools, Los Angeles Unified officials say there has been no visible influx of community college part-time faculty. And those who do apply must meet the same credentialing requirements as everyone else.

In fact, many community college part-time teachers recoil from the idea of teaching high school. Some even resent the suggestion that they would be considered a natural labor pool for high schools.

The reasons vary. College work is not high school work. Community college students are older and more serious. Most of all, numerous community college job seekers cite discipline problems and student indifference as main reasons they don’t want to teach in public schools.

In high school, “if you have a student who is troubled, it takes an act of God to get that student out of the classroom. It doesn’t matter if the whole rest of the class is being held up,” said Fraser, the Sacramento-area teacher.

The reason so few college teaching positions are available is that the wave of faculty retirements predicted since the 1970s has been derailed by the decision of many schools to replace full-timers with a cheaper, part-time work force, said Ernst Benjamin, director of research for the American Assn. of University Professors.

The trend has coincided with cuts to the public sector, eliminating a wealth of government jobs that once provided young academics with an alternate path, he said.

Benjamin believes that things may change. Retirements and enrollment increases will finally force additional hiring, he thinks. At the same time, labor unrest is drawing attention to the issue of part-time teaching work. Most important, he added, public consciousness of the need for quality higher education is on the rise, generating more pressure for additional hires.

In the meantime, though, the outlook remains daunting for many of those who would teach in community colleges.

“You have to look at it in two ways,” said Stephen Runnebohm, the dean of humanities and social science at Mt. San Antonio College. “It’s good in the sense that we have extraordinarily talented people to choose from. But it’s disheartening that we have young people who are very good, and very bright, coming in, and you can’t promise them anything. . . . It’s heartbreaking actually.”