What the ‘labor shortage’ really means, and what you can do about it

Justin Piccininni

Private colleges have more in common with hedge funds than they do with public universities. This observation, I expect, has either been completely intellectualized by much of Williams’ student body or outright unrealized by the rest. Sure, Williams provides an education and all that comes with it, but we as students are nothing short of self-interested investors working with a savvy broker.

This is the part I’m sure many of you have intellectualized. Obviously, attending private or public college is in itself a personal investment — a “human capital investment,” as economics classes are fond of calling it. The difference between private colleges and public universities is a bit more subtle, though. While a public university is a state organization interested mainly in increasing economic productivity and specialized skills within the population it serves, private universities act as investment banks, sustained by giving a high return on investment to its particular investors.

Like any investment bank, Williams College must be fundamentally self-interested. The only way the College can secure an acceptable return is by making the best investments and earning respect through its long lineage of clients: the students. This line of reasoning can be used to explain most decisions made by the College — financial aid can be seen as an investment in its own right (with returns taking the form of increased prestige and possibly donations from the most successful low-income students), as can updating our graphic design with a stylish cartoon cow, as can continuing to invest in fossil fuels.

It gets even more complicated when you consider the variety of services the College must provide in order to keep the human capital investment (education) going. Here, Williams acts a lot like a business. And recently in the dining halls, the College is stretched thin. It would be dishonest to obfuscate the reasons that we’ve all noticed this: The dining halls have been serving us less efficiently, with longer lines and lesser quality offerings than in the past.

In an effort to keep dining costs low this semester while explaining this all away, the college has spun up a few narratives, many of which were on display in the Oct. 6 Record article about staffing problems. The go-to answer here has been the apparent “labor shortages” in the wake of the pandemic. Any student with some basic microeconomic knowledge knows that just saying “there are labor shortages” doesn’t elucidate much about how labor markets actually work: The higher the wage you offer, the more applications you’ll get. For this reason, it is curious that Director of Dining Services Temesgen Araya failed to address the proposition of increasing wages to properly staff the dining hall — not to attract “highly skilled” workers to serve gourmet dishes, but to increase the staff enough so that Dining can

Offering higher wages and keeping a larger staff may reflect poorly on the Williams balance sheet. However, this move would certainly improve the general well-being and education of its students, along with the economic well-being of the entire Dining staff.

If we wish to combat Williams’ self-interested ways, what should we do? The first step would be becoming aware of the broker-investor relationship we have with the College, which I alluded to earlier. Then we would have to become less self-interested as students. I believe most of us students would greatly prefer it if our dining hall workers were paid adequately. This is the easy part — the hard part is identifying the subtle ways in which we are most self-interested.

It seems that part of maintaining a prestigious college, with a reputation that promises to earn us powerful positions and big paychecks in the future, involves using large swaths of the budget for things that don’t provide anything necessary for our education. To get ahead of the most common criticism — that the Williams budget is tightly squeezed by necessary obligations — I’ll use the North Science Center renewal project as an example. When the building opened this past winter, universal excitement could be heard around campus regarding the new space.

Consider the project’s stated intentions to “create needed labs and classrooms, to modernize facilities, and to bring them into compliance with modern academic and code standards.” Were these stated goals really required? And even if we take that as given, was this expensive, shiny building really the only way to achieve them? How much of the budget for that project could have been used on Dining-worker wages? And here’s the key: How many students would forgo this one project for the well-being of the service workers who make our education possible? Once they realize the North Science Center was a budget allocation and not just a pretty backdrop, I think most would consider it.

Like any other rational economic agent, Williams College will continue with a particular investment strategy only as long as it has a potential return. So when investing in oil risks a reputation drop that outweighs the return on the investment, oil money goes kaput. This is what separates Williams from the hedge funds — the College has to answer to the moral objections of its clientele. And that’s just how we can effect change at this school. Pressure from students is one of the strongest factors in any of the College’s decisions, because we exert a lot of control over its reputation. If the College’s reputation goes down, so too will its bottom line. This strategy worked at Harvard and many other schools with fossil fuel divestment, where student-led movements have successfully twisted the arm of administration.

If you want Williams to stop treating its Dining staff unjustly, speak loudly and condemn the College harshly — do the dirty work. Do the picketing. Do the sit-ins. Stop doing the College favors. Stop being the smiling student on the Williams brochure.

There is no reason you should judge our esteemed administration any less than you would judge Berkshire Hathaway. President Maud Mandel is not so different from Warren Buffet. While their businesses may appear different, they essentially do the same thing. If enough of you stop coddling the managers who run this place, you may just get what you want.

Justin Piccininni ’24 is from Bronx, N.Y.