Monday, August 27, 2012

From a former coordinator

I was woodworking studio coordinator from August 2006 to March 2009. My starting pay was $12.23 per hour but working for Penland wasn't about the money because, well, it was Penland and I got to help make the magic happen. This was referred to as the Penland Glow and eventually I joined my co-workers in being amused at how quickly the Glow became tarnished on each new hire.

It is sooo easy to fall under Penland's spell that there is no shortage of those eager to work there. This creates an hourly work staff that is underpaid, generally overqualified, and without any real decision-making authority. It is natural for employees to feel as though they are easily replaced parts.

In February of 2008 I came across a few-years-old Annual Report. I looked at the list of employees as of May 1st, 2005 and calculated that there were 39 resignations since that date for an average of 1 employee resignation every 26.1 days. (“Resignations” includes firings and those not rehired the following year.) Additionally, there were 10 coordinator resignations for an average of 1 coordinator resignation every 3.3 months - an average tenure of 23.1 months. I lasted over 30 months. Yay for me! I'm above average!

The coordinator’s job is unique.  They are the only employees on campus required to have studio proficiency.  They are the only employees on campus (along with core students) required to interact with the students.  They manage budgets and perform equipment maintenance.  They hire assistants and screen work study applications.  They are largely responsible for shaping the student experience. Institutional memory within each studio is essential for the smooth running of the studio.

My first pay raise was 2%. The federal COLA that year was 3.4%.

As various frustrations mounted I would turn to my boss John Britt for advice. John's understanding of human psychology is unsurpassed and he regularly provided the calming words I needed. And just as the staff universally protected the student experience from workplace bickering, so too did John protect the coordinators from the mounting grievances he had with his superiors. When he left, the few remaining remnants of my Penland Glow were ripped away and being a coordinator was just a job. Not a career. Not a cause. Just a job.

In the spring of 2007 (before John left), when I was building the workbenches for the new print/letterpress studio, I knew I was working well over 40 hours per week. I didn't mind this as there was a deadline and I still had a bit of the ol' Penland Glow. Four months later (after John left) these were the overtime hours I listed when the illegality of Penland's pay practices came to light and employees were paid for past overtime. What wasn't mentioned was the fact that every Penland employee is always on duty when on campus. Studio access is theoretically a job perk but because of any number of work-related distractions, focused studio time is difficult. These distraction hours add up really fast but are impossible to add up really accurately and they slowly - imperceptibly - tarnish the Glow.

I first came to Penland for session 3 of 1986 and for over 20 years Penland was my best friend and I was its best ambassador. Because of that I probably shouldn't have worked there. I failed to heed the advice of a great sage - written on a bathroom wall - "Don't sleep with your friends, you'll find out things you don't want to know."

Perhaps when Penland institutes some operational overhaul alongside some extremely specific attrition I'll try to rebuild my friendship with the school. Until then, I'm just not interested.

Steven Tengelsen


Jill Foote-Hutton said...

Thank you for speaking up, as I think John's efforts were in need of hearing your voice. I wish this was a unique story, but fear it is all too common. Maybe if John is successful, it will set a precedent for change throughout more craft organizations.

Jill Foote-Hutton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lily Tinkle said...

Thank you for speaking up about your experience. Those of us who are not affiliated can never see this view and must rely on those whom we trust, and also those who come forward with the details of their experience. John's efforts in being a dissenting voice and bringing this issue up to the community is aided by your adding your voice to his. I hope that this entire effort will help the art and craft community in this case as well as with other organizations who involve artists.