Unsupported, Uninsured, Unsustainable: The effect of contracting on young professionals

From June to December of 2019, the Collections on Contract team circulated an informal survey on social media with the goal of capturing a very preliminary picture of who heritage contractors are, what circumstances have led to their seeking or accepting contract work in the heritage sector, and any personal and professional impacts of working on a contingent basis. From the beginning of this project, the team has been interested in how the increasing reliance on independent contracting in libraries, archives, and museums has affected heritage professionals personally and professionally, especially those who are in the early stages of their careers. While this survey by no means provides a comprehensive picture of the landscape of contingent labor in the Libraries, Archives and Museum (LAM) field, it does confirm much of the anecdotal reporting circulating in social and professional circles and serves as a starting point for more fulsome conversations.

SURVEY SNAPSHOT 

  • 117 LAM professionals across more than 40 institutions responded 
  • Slightly over 60 percent of those interviewed are current or former independent contractors
  • The majority of respondents work in the U.S. but there were also a few respondents from Canada, the UK, and Israel
  • 94.7% of respondents are women
  • 90.5% of respondents are white
  • 44.8% are under the age of 35

Three Important Takeaways:

Almost 70% of respondents feel that working on contract has impacted their health in some way:

Forms response chart. Question title: Has contracting impacted your mental or physical health? . Number of responses: 68 responses.

The majority of contractors feel that their status as contingent laborers leads to job precarity:
Forms response chart. Question title: Do you feel you have job security? I.e. when your current contract ends are you 100% sure you will continue to have paid work at your institution?. Number of responses: 69 responses.

Almost 80% of current and former contractors feel that they receive less support and resources than other employees in the workplace:

Forms response chart. Question title: Have you ever felt that your status as a contractor has left you with less support or resources than other employees?. Number of responses: 68 responses.

So What?

These responses indicate that most contingent laborers are young (35 or under), woman-identifying early-career professionals who find that the experience of contracting leaves them without access to the same resources as their colleagues, benefits, and general job stability. This is hugely important, considering that job stability is a determining factor in an employees overall health (Kuhnert et al., 1989, Ferrie et al., 2002). While this survey was hardly all-encompassing and there are a number of other questions or follow-ups the responses raise, it does provide a window into the way that contracting is impacting the lives of people across the LAM world. Ultimately, we find that these results confirm a lot of the things we have heard anecdotally from colleagues, peers, and LAM workers we’ve connected with online. Furthermore, while the survey presents the LAM contingent workforce as predominantly comprised of young, white women this does not necessarily accurately present the place or experience of workers of color who may not be able or feel welcome to participate in either mainstream professional societies and groups, or our survey.The fact that the majority of respondents feel they receive fewer resources and support than their peers who are full-time staff is troubling, especially considering the wider trend across the LAM industry toward outsourcing many full-time permanent positions to short-term contracting. This trend indicates that there is a growing population of young professionals who are working full-time jobs for the same employers for years at a time but not being afforded the same (or any) benefits, support, and resources as their co-workers. It is also important to remember that the term ‘benefits’ encompasses more than just health care (though that is a very important aspect). But benefits also include sick leave, vacation, and commuter subsidies that are a large part of what makes long-term employment sustainable for most people. By denying contractors these assets, what the LAM field is essentially doing is alienating 90% of the incoming, highly qualified workforce and ultimately forcing many young professionals out of the field. 

Another important point to highlight: while we at CoC actively choose to focus on how contracting can be unsustainable and harmful for contingent laborers in the LAM field, this is by no means the experience of all people working on contract. For instance, one respondent said this:

“Regarding contracting impacting physical/mental health – my answer is yes, but I didn’t have a space to say “for the better”! This survey assumes one works for an institution, which two of my contracted clients are not. This bias skews some of my answers”

It is our goal to learn how people like this make contracting work for them so we can share tips and tricks with our whole community!

Here are some further anonymous testimonials we collected through the survey that help illuminate the nuance of some of the statistics we’ve presented: 

“I have been a contractor for five years. During that time, due to processing errors/delays, I have had a total of 9 months of unpaid time off between contracts. I have repeatedly been referred to as ‘just a contractor’, as if being a contractor instead of federal staff negates my education and experience. I have had months pass between paychecks. And all of this has been met with ‘well that’s what it means to be a contractor’ as if I deserve to be treated as less-than because of my employment status.”

“First, the generalized stress of insecurity is hard to quantify or explain. Also, I am not included in conversations that should include me, because the org does not want to pay those hours — so that results in more work for everyone in the long run.”

One final takeaway from the information we’ve received that begs further discussion is that the individual experience of the role a contractor does and should play in an institution varies a great deal. Some responses indicated clear boundaries between what an ‘employee’ can and should do, while others indicated that institutionally, contractors and employees were expected to perform in very similar ways. 

Ultimately, we find these responses to be concerning. The majority of feedback indicates that there is a large and growing percentage of young professionals in the libraries, archives, and museums field that are increasingly being forced into jobs that provide minimal security and no benefits. Apart from devaluing these individuals, this pattern of precarious job stability and lack of benefits is affecting the health and wellness of the vast majority these young professionals. It is clear that this model of employment across the LAM sector is not only unsustainable but also actively harming the field as a whole.

Do these responses resonate with you? Do you have a completely contrary experience or opinion you’d like to share? We would love to hear from you! Reach out to us via email at collectionsoncontract@gmail.com or find us on Twitter at @ContractOn !

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