State by state and across the country, increasing numbers of people annually are seeking to enter the conflict resolution work stream. The number of gateways to this diverse field—undergraduate and graduate programs, training courses, volunteer opportunities—has also expanded substantially in recent years. A few central questions loom, however: Are there jobs existing or pending to be filled proportionate to the number of career aspirants? What are the career trends in this field? More personally, how do I get such a job or make my way into conflict resolution work?
What is happening with career opportunities in the many diverse fields of conflict resolution for persons in the United States seeking to work in such areas? I have been seeking preliminary answers to this issue over the past few months through interviews with conflict resolution professionals, professors, and other knowledgeable people across the United States, and through literature searches, internet reviews of job listings, and other sources. While my research continues, this is intended as a preliminary report of my findings to date.
I have identified as my primary audience for this report that universe of people who may be contemplating or actively seeking to pursue a career in conflict resolution. While I believe there may be some interest in this report by persons successfully engaged in conflict resolution careers and not contemplating changes as well as some small portion of a general public, I am directing my discussion at the potential or active career aspirant. This person may be either a young college, graduate or law school student or recent graduate, or a lawyer or someone else in mid-career in another field considering moving into conflict resolution on a full- or part-time basis. How realistic is such a pursuit? What are the opportunities? What are the challenges? Where are emerging sub-fields and where may there be current saturation? What are realistic income expectations? How does an interested person prepare to succeed in these areas?
Initial Statement of Findings
Choose your cliché. “The glass is half empty/The glass is half full.” “It is the best of times/It is the worst of times.” “There's some good news/There's some bad news.” Such messages fairly consistently ran throughout the interviews I conducted over the past few months. Several of the leaders that I interviewed stated their overall view of the current situation in essentially the same terms: “The field continues to have a high supply of providers, low market demand, and high social need.” I encountered a number of other educators and practitioners, however, who expressed strong optimism that full and part-time career opportunities in conflict resolution are good currently and will expand again in the future particularly as economic conditions begin to improve.
There are many people who would like to have careers in conflict resolution, and there are a growing number of undergraduate, graduate and training programs that seek to help provide entryways into such work. There are strong indications that a wide range of public and private institutions and organizations have embraced the need for some of the skill set of conflict resolution for managing conflict within their operations (management, customer relations, employee relations, contract negotiations, governmental relations, etc.) in recent years, and that courts at all levels have implemented mediation, arbitration, and other “alternative dispute resolution” approaches to avoid protracted litigation, reduce costs, improve efficiencies, and increase access to justice.
I additionally encountered a fairly consistent belief that opportunities for people in a wide range of work situations to engage in some amount of conflict resolution services as a part of their jobs have almost certainly expanded. On the other hand, funding for various forms of conflict resolution such as mediation and collaborative public policy facilitation has possibly declined recently throughout some or perhaps all of the United States, and some such services previously provided primarily by private practitioners are increasingly being taken in-house by corporations, agencies, and organizations.
I determined that it was difficult to obtain statistical data on the number and nature of conflict resolution services provided in public and particularly private sectors in the United States so as to clearly discern and project professional trends in such areas. See especially, recent articles by Carrie Menkel-Meadow briefly discussed in her interview summary. [Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center and Professor of Law and Political Science, University of California, Irvine School of Law.] I think it likely that there has been some leveling and possible decline in public conflict resolution opportunities with continuing economic downturn beginning in 2008 while private conflict resolution work (chiefly arbitration, mediation, and various “hybrid” services) has likely continued to grow. A majority of the people interviewed for this article believe that overall conflict resolution usage and career opportunities will increase again as the economy rebounds.
In some ways it seems that the U.S. conflict resolution career market appears to reflect the overall economy in that there are a small number of very successful service providers, including retired judges and large firm attorneys, receiving high incomes; a number of persons receiving middle-income returns from the full and part-time conflict resolution careers; and a growing number of persons seeking to enter or expand their services in conflict resolution fields who receive low levels of income from their activities. From my research to date, I found reasons to believe that competition for conflict resolution income will likely increase at all levels as more people continue to enter these fields.
Several parties interviewed echoed the point that we have failed to develop clear pathways into conflict resolution careers. There was much agreement on activities to be undertaken to improve one's chances of gaining access to conflict resolution work or developing a conflict resolution career, as will be described below. There was also some agreement on what the conflict resolution community needs to do to increase public appreciation and utilization of its services and working opportunities for its practitioners.
With some exceptions, most persons interviewed described a fairly long pathway to full-time career success. A substantial number of people interviewed believe that a minority of career aspirants will eventually end up in successful full-time conflict resolution practices or positions, while a substantial number of people who prepare for such work will engage in employment in which some part of their work involves conflict resolution. With particular reference to such private practitioner services as mediation and public policy facilitation, the perception is that a small number of practitioners get very good incomes while there are fairly recent estimates that the majority of providers in private practice likely make $50,000 annually or less from such work while perhaps supplementing their conflict resolution income through other activities.
On the One Hand
Let's start with the good news. The increasing development and use of conflict resolution over the past forty years has been a success story for society in the United States in regard to access to justice, human and civil rights, and social development. Such services have helped change society in positive ways. The resolution of conflicts, the administration of justice, and the practice of law is changing. There is less civil litigation and more alternatively resolved settlements. Despite some currently continuing public crises to the contrary, improved civil discourse and better public policies are being created. Most people working in conflict resolution believe that the trends toward improved conflict management beginning after World War II and accelerating more recently will continue. [See as examples Dozier; Jeghelian; Lauren Abramson, executive director, Community Conferencing Center, Baltimore; Catherine Morris, director, Energy Practice, The Keystone Center, Washington, D.C.; Forrest Mosten, mediator and collaborative lawyer, Los Angeles; Matthew Phillips, executive director, National Association for Community Mediation, Palm Springs, CA]
The use of arbitration in commercial disputes in the United States began at the end of the eighteenth century and expanded substantially in the early twentieth century with the creation of the American Arbitration Association and other entities. Initial use of arbitration and mediation in labor conflicts began slowly in the late nineteenth century, leading to congressional creation of the U.S. Conciliation Services in 1917 in the U.S. Labor Department in 1917 (renamed the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in 1947). The recent development and expansion of mediation, arbitration, and numerous other modes of conflict resolution and management systems since the early 1980s have been the product of corporate endeavors, professional activities, governmental action, academic initiative, individual leadership and foundation support Public funding and foundation grants have played a major role for nearly thirty years. The Hewlett Foundation, Ford Foundation, and other foundation grants were critical in the establishment of conflict resolution associations and a wide range of research, pilot projects and educational programs in conflict resolution beginning in the early 1980s through the early 2000s. Congress enacted the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act of 1990, reenacted and expanded as the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act of 1996, requiring all federal agencies to develop conflict resolution programs and to designate a dispute resolution specialist, even while initially providing relatively little dedicated funding for such activities. Also in 1990, Congress enacted the Civil Justice Reform Act requiring all federal district courts to develop plans for implementing alternative dispute resolution, and strengthened by the Alternative Dispute Resolution Act of 1998 to provide some form of ADR in all federal cases. A majority of states around the country established and funded entities beginning in the mid-1980s to develop and promote state-based conflict resolution services. Also beginning in the mid-80s and increasing the following decade, state courts around the country implemented a wide range of mediation and other alternative dispute resolution programs. [See, Jerome T. Barett with Joseph P. Barrett, A History of Alternative Dispute Resolution: The Story of a Political, Cultural, and Social Movement (2004), pp. 177-259.
During the same period we experienced the beginning of a substantial expansion in the requirements for mediation and arbitration prior to or in lieu of litigation in a wide range of commercial, consumer, employment and other contracts across many sectors. See, e.g., Carrie Menkel-Meadow, “Regulation of Dispute Resolution in the United States of America: From the Formal to the Informal to the 'Semi-Formal',” in Felis Steffek et al, editors, Regulating Dispute Resolution—ADR and Access to Justice at the Crossroads (2013), pp. 419-454.
Conflict resolution and collaborative problem solving are skills increasingly recognized as important for managers, lawyers and others in federal, state and local government, corporate, business and nonprofit sectors. [Emerson, et al.] There is increasing usage of such skills in health care, higher education institutions, and other organizations and services. [Emerson; Carole Houk, Carole Houk International, LLC, Washington, D.C.]
Very early in this research project, I began Googling for job listings with such terms as “conflict resolution,” “conflict management,” and “mediation.” I would locate some positions listing such terms in a job title, and a large number of positions in management, human relations, client relations, customer service, health care administration, grants management, and numerous other fields listing such skill sets as the second, third, or fourth requirement for the position.
From my recent research, it is my belief that conflict resolution services have become acknowledged and integrated at the organizational level in business, public, and nonprofit sectors in recent years as never before. As a number of my sources variously stated, the field has succeeded in creating an expanded consciousness of collaborative problems solving approaches, with the result that problem-solving skill sets are being required in a wide range of job positions. (But see, cite to recent Heil H. Katz and Linda T. Flynn article, below.)
Colin Rules stated that “Every manager in the U.S. is doing conflict resolution. We want to put these skills in everyone's hands.” [Rule is Chief Operating Officer, Modria.com, Silicon Valley, CA]
In short, the concept of and appreciation for “conflict resolution” has become a part of our culture. Howard Gadlin commented that “Kids are being raised from at least middle school on with mediation being used for student disputes.”
Robert Jones reported seeing increasing use of collaborative decision-making in public and private sectors, creating opportunities for new dispute resolution skill sets. He believes employers will expect employees to know how to collaborate effectively. “This will be part of one's job rather than a discrete career path in many instances.” [Jones is director, FCRN Consensus Center, Florida State University.] I expect that this trend will continue to provide work for consultants and trainers to help organizations develop, incorporate and implement these skills.
Chris Honeyman stated the challenge for our profession as “How do we take this kind of knowledge and spread it more broadly throughout organizations.” [Honeyman is managing partner, Convenor Conflict Management, Madison, WI and Washington, D.C.] Docherty urged cultivating “conflict resolution skills in a wide range of people. Seek to transform the entire culture so that everyone is conflict competent.”
A number of persons interviewed believe that we are continuing to see a growth in ombuds positions by federal, state, and local government, the corporate sector, health care, and (perhaps) higher education. See, e.g., Mary Rowe interview summary. [Rowe is Ombuds, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.] This is consistent with the perceived increased in-house institutionalization of a range of conflict resolution services by public and private organizations. (E.g., Emerson, Hicks, Nancy Rogers. [Rogers is Professor, Alternative Dispute Resolution, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.]
“Ombudsmen, or ombuds for short, came on strong in the 1980s. By 1983, over one thousand individuals were operating as ombuds in government, private industry, and universities. . . . Ombuds combine several ADR processes: negotiation, fact-finding, arbitration, and simply listening to referral to where help is available. . . . It is some-times described as the union-free answer to the union grievance procedure, since the ombuds process provides an outlet and solutions to complains within organizations.” Jerome T. Barrett with Joseph P. Barrett, A History of Alternative Dispute Resolution: The Story of a Political, Cultural and Social Movement (2004), pp. 219-220.
Tim Hicks believes the current career growth areas are ombuds programs and organizational conflict management, plus facilitated environmental public policy decision-making, particularly in the western U.S. He stated that his graduates are “working broadly in the field” (including in human relations offices and nonprofit organizations) even if not necessarily doing what they initially wanted or planned, with about 80% working in fields more or less related to their academic backgrounds. He believes that employment opportunities are growing both in conflict resolution jobs and jobs seeking conflict resolution skills.
Tamra Pearson d'Estree also believes there are more opportunities for conflict resolution specialists, particularly at in-house positions in government agencies, corporations, and other organizations, than existed twenty years ago. Ivan Sasha Sheehan identified conflict management job growth especially in the public and nonprofit sectors, and sees his Negotiations and Conflict Management graduate students successfully using their degrees. “One hundred percent of our graduates benefit from and use their degrees personally and professionally.”
Regarding conflict coaching, Tricia Jones and Ross Brinkert stated, “. . . [W[ anticipate that conflict coaching will shortly parallel mediation as a core intervention in our field. Just as mediation swept the country in the 1980s, we believe that conflict coaching has the same momentum in the coming decades.” Tricia S. Jones & Ross Brinkert, Conflict Coaching: Conflict Management Strategies and Skills for the Individual (2008), p. 292.
Several persons interviewed believed there continues to be some growth in the demand for mediation services in family and divorce conflicts, and perhaps in court-ordered mediation generally, while others stated that public funding by judiciaries for such mediations was declining in several states specifically and perhaps plateauing overall, and the increase in mediators was growing faster than the demand. Mosten is confident in continued growth generally in mediation demand and use, while others (Bickerman, Docherty, Sheehan, et al.) are less sanguine. Court-based mediation services are described by several people interviewed as an area where lawyer mediators have a very substantial edge, and where a small number of mediators (chiefly retired judges and well-known lawyers) get a majority of the cases. Bickerman believes, however, that growth in court-ordered mediation is marginalizing mediation—stating many less capable mediators are now doing court-ordered cases and “It's become an event in the litigation process. Check off the mediation box before continuing with litigation to mediation.”
JAMS (founded in 1979 and formerly named Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services, Inc.) is one of the largest providers of alternative dispute resolution services in the world. It currently has a roster of over 300 neutrals, consisting primarily of retired judges and attorneys, and handles an average of more than 12,000 cases annually in the U.S. and around the world. Michael Lewis reported that JAMS has been doing very well recently, with higher earnings in the past year than at any prior time in its history. He stated that JAMS experienced some contraction in cases around 2008 or 2009, after which its service demand and revenues came back very strongly and has been on an upward trajectory ever since. [Lewis is a JAMS mediator, with offices in Washington, D.C.] He also indicated that while he is aware of some contraction of state court-ordered mediations recently in some states, he believes that private attorneys have continued using ADR in non-court-ordered matters at about the same rate as before the recent recession.
I do not have statistical or financial data regarding the American Arbitration Association (AAA), which is a major provider of arbitration, mediation, and other ADR services in the U.S. and internationally. AAA is the leading U.S. provider of arbitration services in contractually required consumer, employment and other disputes, as well as in a wide range of other commercial, private, and public conflicts. I believe that such services by AAA and other private providers are likely continuing to expand. Carrie Menkel-Meadow has recently written:
Efforts to document and report on the dimensions and market share of these [ADR services] have been largely unsuccessful, in large part because so much dispute resolution (mediation, arbitration and hybrids) is conducted in the private sphere without any requirements for reporting to public agencies in the United States . . . . In the United States (which so far stands alone in this controversial practice), arbitration is now mandatory (and pre-emptive of litigation) in almost all consumer and employment disputes as mandatory pre-dispute assignment to arbitration is found in almost all contracts, and the practice has been sustained by the United States Supreme Court against virtually all constitutional and statutory challenges. . . . Clearly the use of arbitrators and mediators has increased in high stake matters like the BP oil spill, the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund, other major class actions, and in the use of court adjuncts as special masters, designers and implementers of other mass tort, mass disaster and similar claims.
(Carrie Menkel-Meadow, “Doing Good Instead of Doing Well? What Lawyers Could Be Doing in a World of 'Too Many' Lawyers,” 3, 3 Onati Socio-legal Series (3013), pp. 388-389, cited with quotes in her interview summary. See also, Carrie Menkel-Meadow, “Regulation of Dispute Resolution in the United States of America: From the Formal to the Informal to the Semi-formal,” in Felix Steffek et al, editors, Regulating Dispute Resolution—ADR and Access to Justice at the Crossroads (2013), also cited and quoted in her interview summary.)
Community mediation programs provide reduced fee and free mediation services in a range of conflict areas by staff and volunteer mediators working in nonprofit or public agency settings. The National Association for Community Mediation (NAFCM) reported that in 2011 there were over 400 community mediation programs throughout the United States, with over 1,300 staff and more than 20,000 volunteers. The programs have been primarily dependent on governmental, foundation, and private contributions and suffered cuts in funding, staff and services since 2008. [See, Corbett and Corbett cite, below.] NAFCM executive director Matthew Phillips described how many programs have recently become more innovative and entrepreneurial, citing to a November 2013 NAFCM report, “2013 State of Community Mediation Supplement” describing how five community mediation programs around the country had recently increased their funding. The report stated “[T]hese successes in the field of community mediation all occurred since the downturn in the economy demonstrating the field's resilience and ability to grow under the most difficult of circumstances.” Phillips added that “It feels like there are unlimited opportunities for community mediation. We should have centers in every community. We're going to try to create opportunities for community mediation to move in different directions.” [See, Phillips interview summary for cites and discussion.]
When asked about reported competition and other conflicts between private mediators and community mediation centers around the country, Phillips stated “We're seeking to work together and utilize the different strengths we have,” citing a community mediation/public agency/private mediator foreclosure prevention program he was involved with in the state of Washington before coming to NAFCM. He believes that it is mutually beneficial for community mediation centers and private mediators to establish supportive symbiotic relationships, and that such partnerships will increase around the country.
Lauren Abramson believes that community conferencing and restorative justice services are continually growing programs, “bubbling from the ground up.” She stated that a fair amount of governmental funding went into such services in the early 1990s, focusing on such issues as court diversion for juvenile and other offenders and more recently school discipline and other matters, but declining in the early and mid-2000s with the result that some early programs did not survive. She indicated that a good number of local programs have since developed, with the result that virtually every state now has restorative justice work underway. She believes there are growing opportunities around the country to do such work, which she described as a “movement on the rise.”
Carrie Menkel-Meadow reported that the use of conflict resolution services is growing very substantially around the world. She stated that the European Union has recently required all member nations to establish directives on using mediation in civil and trans-border cases, and mediation is currently being routinely used throughout Europe in high-end probate, trust, family and other cases. She cited me to Regulating Dispute Resolution—ADR and Access to Justice at the Crossroads (above), with chapters devoted to describing the development and regulation of ADR in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, England and Wales, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States. She reported recently encountering growth opportunities in arbitration and a little in mediation in Singapore and other parts of Asia. (Note, however, Menkel-Meadow indicated she believes there has been a recent downturn in the availability of public conflict resolution jobs in the U.S., as discussed below.)
She also reported that lawyers in big cases are much more familiar with mediation now and more willing to use mediation. Sophisticated lawyers are using high-end mediation frequently, looking for mediators who fit their needs and confidence levels.
In “Doing Good Instead of Doing Well? What Lawyers Could Be Doing in a World of 'Too Many' Lawyers” (cited above, p. 389) directed primarily at lawyers and law students, Menkel-Meadow briefly described what she perceived as “at least ten new possible sites of work” in emerging forms of “dispute resolution lawyering work” to include court ADR; private mediation, arbitration and other forms of dispute resolution; mass claim management; drafting and managing contract based mandatory dispute programs; community mediation; internal organizational dispute resolution for public and private organizations; facilitated public policy development; international diplomacy in public and private negotiations; ADR usage in less adversarial criminal processes at domestic and international levels; and a range of other preventive dispute resolution approaches.
Menkel-Meadow, Docherty, Pearson d'Estree and others believe there is a steady growth in job opportunities in international peace-building projects in the developing world with governmental, humanitarian, and other programs. They stated that those seeking work in such areas must generally demonstrate some international experience and language capabilities as well as other areas of expertise (evaluation, geographic information systems, technology skills, education, health care, civil engineering, international law, regional specializations, etc.) in addition to their peace-building and conflict resolution skills.
Many of my informants commented on the abundance of conflict available for practitioners to engage. Chris Honeyman said, “There continues to be a lot of conflict in a lot of areas,” and Marvin Johnson opined that” Where there are human beings, there is conflict.” [Johnson is executive director, Center for Alternative Dispute Resolution, Greenbelt, MD.] “People who are creative, opportunistic and ambitious need to network, volunteer, get known, and sell, and eventually they will find something to focus on, market, and succeed, “Juliana Birkhoff stated. [Birkhoff is vice president, RESOLVE, Washington, D.C.]
Perhaps the most optimistic area of agreement overall from the interview respondents is in regard to the perceived increase in work opportunities requiring conflict resolution skills across virtually all employment sectors. As will be discussed more fully under “How to get work and make a career,” below, aspirants are encouraged to seek opportunities to use their conflict resolution skills in their professional fields, develop and demonstrate those skills, and perhaps (if they desire) develop a full-time conflict resolution career using their expertise, experiences, contacts, and demonstrated credentials.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its May 2012 report, projected a 14% growth rate in the conflict resolution field for the period 2008-2018, stating that:
[E]mployment of arbitrators, mediators and conciliators is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2018. Many individuals and businesses try to avoid litigation, which can involve lengthy delays, high costs, unwanted publicity and ill will. . . . Demand will also continue to increase for arbitrators, mediators and conciliators because all jurisdictions now have some type of dispute resolution program. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes231022htm.
I encountered a substantial level of professional satisfaction and enthusiasm with their chosen fields among many of the people interviewed. Describing community conferencing and restorative justice, for example, Abramson said that “If you are interested in social justice and reform, this is incredibly powerful work. You have the privilege of providing and bearing witness to a very powerful transformation for giving communities a sense of collective empowerment and being an agent of institutional reform.” Regarding his private mediation practice, Mosten stated that “[M]y life's work of peacemaking has provided a comfortable living and has been a continual source of personal fulfillment.” Phillips encouraged interested people to “Take a basic community mediation training. Such training helps make you a better human being. That alone is a huge reason to explore it and use in your personal life.” Sheehan reported that “Students are drawn to the field [of conflict resolution], seeing utility in their lives and work.” His advice to his students is to “first become passionate about doing conflict engagement, whether in business, international relations, domestic issues, urban policy, or other areas, and to follow that passion.” Rogers cited to a new book she has written and published with Robert C. Bordone, Frank E.A. Sander, and Craig A. McEwen, Designing Systems and Processes for Managing Disputes (2013) in which they stated “[W]hat you contribute as a [conflict management systems] designer may improve the quality of life—sometimes even save lives—and represent the most personally rewarding contributions of your career.” Describing her work as ombuds at Massachusetts Institute of Technology the past forty years, Mary Rowe said “It's the best job in the world.”