Professional organizations and support for professionals experiencing unemployment

Conor P. McLaughlin
Bowling Green State University

In February 2020 3.5% of the United State population was experiencing unemployment (Statista, 2020), though this number would climb substantially if it were to account for people who have termed out of access to unemployment insurance and have stopped looking for work (Economic Policy Institute, 2017). As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, more than six million people applied for unemployment assistance in March 2020 (Tappe & Kertz, 2020) and currently more than 20 million people in the United States are out of work (Long, 2020), and in April 2020 the US unemployment rate was 14.7% (Tappe, 2020).  Higher education is not immune. While many schools have shifted their operations to a virtual and distanced format, cuts to funding and increased economic precarity will bring furloughs, layoffs, and hiring freezes for the 2020-2021 academic year (Whitford, 2020a). Unprecedented times like these are when many professionals will be most in need of their professional networks and systems of support.

Professional organizations provide student affairs professionals with opportunities to network, develop relationships, give and receive mentoring, and develop systems for professional support (Reesor, Bagunu, & Hazely, 2013; Gardner & Barnes, 2007; Van Der Linden, 2005). Professional organizations, and active engagement in them, can be an important pathway to accessing resources that can lead to career advancement, among other things (Reesor et al., 2013). While professional organizations and conferences are not the only places to experience professional development, these combined with mentorship from supervisors can play a substantive part in creating a supportive professional environment (Renn & Hodges, 2007; Tull, 2006). How, then, will student affairs professionals experiencing unemployment access the resources and support professional organizations can offer?

Experiencing Unemployment

This is the first research study on experiencing unemployment in the field of student affairs. However, a body of literature does exist that illuminates the impact of experiencing unemployment within a larger society and which is relevant to professionals in student affairs. Employment provides many adults with a social circle, human interaction (Creed, Bloxsome, & Johnston,, 2001), and for 49% of US resident access to health insurance (Kaiser Family Foundation, n.d.). Unemployment can cause lower self-esteem (Creed & Bartrum, 2006; McKee-Ryan, Song, Wanberg, & Kinicki, 2005; Waters & Moore, 2002), and this can in-turn decrease likelihood for becoming employed (Waters & Moore, 2002). This decreased self-esteem is often exacerbated when people’s sense of self is strongly tied to their career (Mckee-Ryan et al., 2005). When people who are unemployed do not have access to social circles or access to healthcare they are more likely to experience negative physical and psychological health impacts (Herbig et al., 2013; Wanberg, 2012; Creed Machin, & Hicks, 1999; Rantakeisa Starrin, & Hagquist, 1999). Further, experiencing long-term unemployment can increase chances of mortality related to mental (depression, anxiety, suicide ideation, alcoholism) and physical (chronic illness, stress related illnesses) health issues (Herbig, Dragano, & Angerer, 2013).

Supporting Student Affairs Professionals

There has also not been research on the specific ways in which student affairs professionals experiencing unemployment can be supported, though a body of literature that discusses supporting professionals exists. Much of this literature focuses on new professionals and places the role of support and mentoring on their direct supervisor (e.g. Reesor et al., 2013; Renn & Hodges, 2007; Tull, 2003). Additionally, mentoring and mentorship are important to the advancement of student affairs professionals who hold one or more minoritized identities (Jackson & Flowers, 2003; Blackhurst, 2000; Twale & Jelinek, 1996). Literature on professional organizations similarly focuses on their utility for developing new professional’s networks and support systems (Reesor et al., 2013; Gardner & Barnes, 2007). Ongoing involvement can also foster and deepen the development of professional identity and commitment to the field for early career professionals (Hirschy, Wilson, Liddell, Boyle, & Pasquesi, 2015). While many interpret the need for competent advising and support as being an obligation to students, competent professional practice is equally owed to colleagues as is a commitment to removing systemic barriers to participation (ACPA & NASPA, 2015).

It seems logical to assume that accessing mentoring and participating in professional organizations would be more difficult, though not impossible, for student affairs professionals experiencing unemployment. They may not have the financial means or institutional support for involvement. They also would not have regular access to the same tools for connection to colleagues around a campus. These realizations helped to bring to light the questions which informed the larger study from which this article has been drawn.

Data Collection and Analysis

To answer the research question “how did student affairs professionals who have experienced unemployment feel supported” I used a paradigmatic narrative inquiry approach (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Polkinghorne, 1995). I used purposeful sampling (Bryman, 2012) through social media groups for student affairs professionals and email list-serves. I conducted the seven semi-structured interviews (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009) over skype or zoom. I transcribed them verbatim and identified themes through an In Vivo coding approach (Saldaña, 2015).

Findings From the Study

One of the more notable themes that emerged from the interviews was the role professional organizations played in feeling supported or unsupported while experiencing unemployment for this group of student affairs professionals. In fact, the theme of professional organizations was the only theme that was spoken to by every participant, which is noteworthy. Participants who were able to maintain their membership to professional organizations found that this added to the ways in which they were supported while experiencing unemployment.

Elan, who experienced six-months of unemployment after graduate school, said that maintaining his membership provided access to information and on-going training. He said “I was still reading the journals.  I still kept my membership to ACPA, which was helpful because I would get the journals and was able to attend meetings and workshops around the region and in the area.” Yvonne, who was unemployed for over a year after finishing her doctorate and was able to maintain her membership because of her personal financial circumstances, was able to continue to add to her resume and maintain professional relationships. She said “I was still involved with ACPA so I think people on my commission we’re all really supportive. I still did presentations at conferences, working with other [professionals] to do that.”

Other participants, however, experienced their interactions with professional organizations very differently. Edwin, who was unemployed for roughly 8 months after moving with his partner to be closer to their work, said it became an unnecessary expense, “with NASPA and ACPA I couldn’t really pay so I wasn’t really going to be able to spend the money to stay as a part of those organizations.” Elliott, who was unemployed for roughly a year after receiving their master’s degree, echoed this sentiment, “it’s hard to stay connected when you don’t have a source of income.” Devon, who was unemployed for over two years after getting their doctorate and only became employed by leaving the field of higher education, spoke to making a sustained effort to stay involved while struggling to navigate the financial obligation as well. They said, “I’ve tried to maintain some kind of connection, I’m on the ACPA convention planning team.” They continued, “It’s hard to be [involved] when you can’t afford to pay for it. I’ve had to petition numerous times to give my labor freely to an organization that wants to charge me.”

Shayne, who was unemployed for over a year after being terminated from a position, said the expense of involvement was a factor as well. She said, “part of it was I couldn’t afford to go.” She continued, saying that another part of the decision to not go was the stigma of having been fired, “I didn’t feel like I should go to those conferences—the local or the regional one. If I could have afforded I wouldn’t have gone to it because I would have run into former staff or other people.” Keagan, who was unemployed for roughly 9 months after her contract was bought out during a reorganization, agreed. “I intentionally remove[d] myself. [I] knew that I didn’t necessarily want to spend as much time with people discussing what was going on nationally because I knew it was going to make me upset.”

Personal Reflection

I experienced unemployment for 13 months between 2011 and 2012. During that time I stopped going to conferences because I couldn’t afford to maintain my membership. Even though at the time ACPA was willing to offer graduate student registration and membership rates to professionals who were out of work at the time (a policy they no longer advertise), that was still more money than I could afford after paying rent, internet, cell phone, and student loan bills each month. I kept my membership as long as I could, and I tried to finesse as many of the regulations as possible. Especially around convention time, it became very difficult to see pictures and hear stories about how excited everyone was to reconnect and whose proposals got accepted. I didn’t feel like my professional home had a way to welcome me. My participation in the field declined and my access to resources was entirely dependent on other people being willing to share what they had. It also made searching for a job even more difficult, and I ended up spending almost a year volunteering while collecting unemployment insurance as a way to hide a big gap on my resume. I now teach in a student affairs and higher education graduate program, and I see students wrestling with these questions every day. They appreciate access to webinars at a reduced cost, and do not necessarily see how going to another webinar is going to help them stand out in an over-crowded job market and keep a search from being canceled.


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust higher education, the US, and the world into an amazing state of precarity. Cohorts of students are graduating from professional preparation programs as job searches are being canceled or frozen (Whitford, 2020b), and professionals at many levels are being laid off into that same job market (Whitford, 2020a). Student Affairs professional organizations should expect to see a drop in their membership and in participation. I would argue that this does not decrease their obligation to sustaining the communities that have been built around these organizations. The ACPA and NASPA Professional Competencies (2015) describe social justice competence as, in part, a practice of ensuring equitable access to resources and the elimination of systemic barriers to participation. The findings I have presented here suggest that when people can access professional organization membership while experiencing unemployment it can play a role in supporting them. We also can see that not everyone is able to experience this support and often the barriers to access are related to finances and stigma regarding unemployment. Both of these are barriers which this profession has committed itself to working to disrupt (ACPA & NASPA, 2015). It will be important to recognize that student affairs professionals do experience unemployment, that professional organizations have an obligation to alleviate stigma associated with this experience, and eliminate the evident barriers to resources and participation. While student affairs professionals were experiencing unemployment long before the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a moment in which professional organizations will have the opportunity to clearly demonstrate its commitment to competent practice.


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Author Bio

Conor McLaughlin is a Teaching Professor at Bowling Green State University in the Department of Higher Education and Student Affairs. They teach classes on student development, college outcomes, representations of colleges in fiction, and multicultural leadership. Conor researches unemployment in the field of student affairs and practicing leadership in the field of student affairs.

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