The Best Higher Ed Places to Work in Maine–What Counts?

A recently published letter to the editor by a long-time classified employee at the Orono campus noted her keen disappointment at the inability to afford some classes at the campus’ excellent Recreation Center because they were apparently no longer free to classified employees (and perhaps other campus employees). Despite decades of service to U Maine, her salary was still so low that paying for classes that might otherwise contribute to her overall health were out of the question.

I do not profess to know the specifics behind this lament, but I’ve heard comparable comments from other classified employees with decades of service regarding the same changes in whatever modest perks were finally allowed in the latest classified employee contract.

The opportunity to participate in classes on campus certainly doesn’t compare with issues like salary and division of costs between employee and employer for healthcare overall, but it is nevertheless revealing of what might make poorly paid employees a bit more satisfied in their jobs and help them maintain their level of dedicated service to their institution.

I was reminded about what makes institutions of whatever kind and size attractive places to work by the recently published 2013 survey of the Best Places to Work in Maine. This eight-year old survey appears in, and is sponsored, by the biweekly publication MaineBiz. Not surprisingly, MaineBiz focuses upon for profit- businesses in its many interesting stories, but it also covers non-profits and sometimes includes excellent analyses of Maine colleges and universities.  As someone in public higher education, I have learned a lot about both it and the private sector over the years by reading MaineBiz.

I know nothing about most of the institutions listed in the Best Places to Work survey, which is divided between small/medium (15-249 U.S. employees) and large (250 or more U.S. employees) categories. But I AM quite familiar with three: Bangor Savings Bank, L.L. Bean, and Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems. I bank with the first, buy lots of items from the second, and have had numerous in-patient and out-patients visits to the third. In all three cases I’ve been pleased overall with my “treatment” as either a customer or a patient.

More generally, what comes through in the issue’s short articles about these and other highly praised institutions is a pervasive concern for making employees feel appreciated and for providing various perks–like recreational opportunities–that contribute to their physical and mental health. Or, in the editors’ words, “a celebration of companies that create environments where people love to work.”

MaineBiz does not survey Maine’s colleges and universities, but how revealing it might be if it ever did. It would surprise me, however, if the low morale and low salaries among faculty and staff throughout the UMaine System’s seven campuses is duplicated at, say, Bates or Bowdoin or Colby. A former U Maine student of mine began working at Bates in summer 2012 and, as I’ve been told repeatedly since, was warmly welcomed by new coworkers from day one, was treated with respect from everyone from Bates’ President on down, and was included in various campus events that, at Orono, would never include most ordinary staff members.

It doesn’t take a brilliant management thinker like the late Peter Drucker to recognize that there are  payoffs to trying to make the workplace environment an appealing place for all employees, not least those at the bottom of the totem pole. But that common sense notion doesn’t seem to trickle down everywhere in higher education in the state of Maine.

Sorry, folks–got to go. Must check out what purchases I will soon be able to make–a new car, a summer house at last, and an exotic vacation–with the “big” salary increases awaiting me if/when the new contract for University of Maine System employees is approved by a majority of faculty  union members. After twenty-eight months of protracted negotiations, the faculty may soon be getting some 1% and 2% increases after pay freezes since July 2009 (save for those who got tenure and/or promotion or modest post-tenure review additions to base salary).

As would-be Vice President Paul Ryan might say, anyone who doesn’t appreciate this forthcoming wealth is a “taker.” Or, as would-be President Mitt Romney might chime in, such persons are in the 47% of Americans “richly” deserving their lack of a bigger paycheck. Go work out any frustrations at a local gym–but at your own expense, buddy.