I was trying to look on the bright side of the recession, to point my feet to the sunny side of the street, to not worry and be happy, and all the other hippy-dippy, feel-good, perky things that stupid people do because they can’t face reality.
For example, in a recession, jobs are more scarce, and the greater competition means that the better and more qualified people end up with the jobs. That’s a good thing for everyone except the worse and less qualified people.
In librarianship, this should mean that the best and the brightest are getting the jobs. I know there are a lot of librarians and library school graduates out there who have had a hard time finding jobs for years, but having seen a lot of resumes and cover letters in my day, and heard about many more, I can say with some confidence that the good librarians get good jobs eventually, often commensurate with their abilities and talents.
Though the ALA and library schools have done there best to over-recruit into the profession, they haven’t succeeded in getting better librarians. They’ve just recruited more bad ones by making it ever easier to get into an MLS program and graduate. It turns out being willing to pay $20,000 a year for an online MLS degree isn’t a sufficient qualification for most jobs.
Eventually, even some within the ALA couldn’t live within the “librarian shortage” lie, and at some point we began hearing about the shortage of “library leadership.” That shortage has been in effect for decades, even though we had people in management positions. Now we can’t even fill a lot of those positions with warm bodies, much less good leaders.
So what gives? Why aren’t we getting those library leaders? Why are positions for Director of this and Assistant Director of that and Head of this other thing not being filled? Sometimes there aren’t even many applications, and sometimes even when an offer is made the candidate turns down the job.
Turns down a job!, some of you might say? Yes, indeed it happens. Either that or strong candidates don’t even bother to apply. Why might that be?
There could be many reasons, but there’s at least one that comes to mind based on some discussions I’ve been having with colleagues around the country in the past few weeks. It’s pretty simple. Libraries either don’t want, or can’t afford, the best librarians.
Think of job ads you’ve seen that say things like the salary is “competitive” or “commensurate with experience.” Guess what, that’s usually not true, even if the people posting the ad might think it’s true.
Librarian salaries are often “competitive” only if your competition is a bunch of risk averse ninnies who’ll work for chump change. This works out fine for entry level jobs, where the candidates are desperate and willing to do anything to get their big break into the profession, but it doesn’t work so well for advanced positions, or at least it doesn’t anymore.
Salaries are often “commensurate with experience” if by that one means the “experience of doing a lot of work for little pay.” In the past that might have worked, but it’s not working anymore, and the result is a lot of unfilled jobs.
Librarianship has become such a catchall profession that it’s just too easy to move on to greener pastures. Clever, ambitious people trained to be librarians can go ply their trade under other names in other types of organizations. They can become consultants full time or on the side.
It’s also easy to see the libraries that are serious about recruiting good people. They’ll often post the salary right in the ad. I was skimming through job ads and saw one for an associate dean in Houston for about $100,000 and another for a library system director in California for about $135,000. Not outstanding salaries, but respectable, and direct.
I saw another one for a library director Pennsylvania for about $40,000. Not as respectable, but at least direct. I spotted ads for library directors in Idaho and Wyoming for about $65,000 a year. I don’t know if that’s a lot for those places, but it’s certainly not enough to attract people who aren’t already in Idaho or Wyoming.
Contrast any of these with the vague claims about “competitive” or “commensurate with experience.” At least a library that offers $40,000 for a director knows that they’re getting, and the people who apply know what they’d be getting. Except for the libraries where the salary is just pathetic, I’d speculate that the libraries with the vaguest salary quotes are the ones having the hardest time filling positions.
You might not agree with me. But let’s say for the purpose of argument your library has one or more open management positions, and has vague claims about salary. If you had a head of technical services or head of reference position and advertised it for $120,000/year, how many good applicants do you think you’d get? More than now?
Moving up, let’s say you want an associate director or associate university librarian, but haven’t gotten many good applicants. Just post the ad with a salary of, say, $170,000/year and see how many great candidates would apply. Director of a large library or mid-size system? $250,000/year would probably get you some good candidates. $320,000 and you could take your pick.
That might sound like a lot to some librarians, but those salaries are still pretty small compared to what one can make as a manager in the private sector. If you could manage a reference department well, you could manage a corporate sales team for twice that salary. And if you could run a library system really well, you could probably be a CEO for a good company. And if you knew a lot about information technology, you could do even better.
If your library is having a hard time recruiting, maybe it’s like the places profiled in this Wall St. Journal story last week: Some Firms Struggle to Hire Despite High Unemployment.
The owner of Mechanical Devices in Bloomington, IL complains that he can’t find $13/hour machinists. It’s these darn jobless benefits that are that are keeping people from accepting his low pay. It couldn’t possibly be the crappy pay or that “temporary jobs…have increased 21% since September 2009 as more employers—including Mechanical Devices—hire through staffing agencies to help control health-care costs and maintain flexibility.”
A recruiter for the airline Emirates speculates that low attendance at job fairs might mean that Americans don’t have much of a spirit of adventure. Taking a salary of $30,000 to move to Dubai needs something more like a spirit of stupidity or desperation.
We see the same thing in plenty of library jobs. Libraries don’t pay much. They want to “maintain flexibility.” It turns out that when you don’t compensate people well and give them job security, or expect them to travel long distances to unattractive places, they don’t really want to work for you.
So you can claim all you like that your library wants “enthusiastic, experienced, innovative, motivated, highly qualified” librarians. Every library wants that. If you really want it, you’ll pay for it and you’ll be upfront about it. Otherwise, it would be more honest to post an ad saying, “We want the best person willing to work for our mediocre salary,” because that’s what savvy people see in a lot of job ads anyway.
It turns out that offer isn’t very attractive, and we see the result all around us in failed searches, unfilled jobs, and jobs filled with the least unsatisfactory candidates. What an exciting time to be a librarian!