Last summer the Southern California Mediators Association posted to its blog an essay by mediator Christine von Wrangel provocatively titled, “Mediation: A Lucrative Career or a Ticket to the Poor House?“, a polemic directed against the many universities and training programs raising the career expectations of hundreds of mediator-hopefuls:
Almost every accredited or unaccredited university has jumped on the “mediation” bandwagon. Enrolling in these courses can cost students from $500 to well over $1,000 per course, depending on the provider. For universities, retired judges, conflict resolution institutions, government and private mediation providers, the business of offering mediation courses has become lucrative.
Marketing companies have now jumped on the band wagon, promising they can help mediators find a profitable niche in the market, provided of course they are willing to pay the thousands of dollars it takes to launch a marketing campaign.
Who are the winners in this mediation frenzy? Clearly, the providers of mediation training courses and related services.
Who are the losers? The students enrolling in these courses, because most have been lead to believe that they will be able to carve out a living as a mediator after “graduation.” And this is rarely the case.
Von Wrangel asked,
Is it ethical to continue to inundate the market with more mediation courses and classes, when most students who graduate face a superfluity of mediation providers, with little hope to start a successful mediation practice?
Wellington mediator Geoff Sharp points his readers to a study recently released that provides the statistical evidence for von Wrangel’s concerns. In a report titled, “Making Peace and Making Money: Economic Analysis of the Market for Mediators in Private Practice“, Urška Velikonja, a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University, presents data that the supply of mediators far outstrips their demand and paints a distressing picture of the realities of mediation practice for the hundreds of aspiring mediators who emerge each year from trainings and degree programs across the U.S.
Velikonja singles out mediation trainers for some sharp criticism:
The failure by mediation trainers to provide accurate information about opportunities to make money in mediation contributes to excess entry in the market for mediation services….[I]naccurate information about the availability of mediation jobs as well as overoptimism lead aspirant mediators to spend money on mediation training and starting a mediation practice, and incur opportunity costs by foregoing other career opportunities. Not only may the failure of mediation trainers to fully disclose the pros and cons of mediation practice and correct trainee misapprehensions be unethical, it also leads to socially inefficient outcomes. To correct this misallocation of resources, mediation training programs should disclose information about “the known opportunities, limits, and obstacles in mediation in mediation employment and professional practice opportunities.”
She even anticipates the counterargument mediation trainers often trot out:
While it is true that mediation may be a useful skill in our work and familial lives, it is likely that fewer people would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on mediation training without the expectation that training could lead to a career change.
I at least am one mediation trainer who is brutally honest when people contact me for advice on becoming a mediator. I cringe every time I hear someone tell me that they plan to leave a well-paying job to become a mediator as soon as they finish their basic mediation training. I routinely tell people not to quit their day jobs, although many of them seem determined to do so, buoyed up by an unreliable optimism. And I despair when I get the inevitable email from a recent university graduate with a degree in conflict resolution, desperately looking for work as a mediator and frustrated because their college placement office could not help them find a job.
I don’t believe (yet, at any rate) that we should stop training people to be mediators. I still believe that the skills are useful in workplace, civic, and family settings. But Velikonja’s report should be required reading for anyone who is thinking about becoming a mediator. And I hope mediation trainers take the time to read it, too.