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In scheduled sessions, happy hour discussions, and informal dinner conversations, a common theme came up time and time again at the National Association of College and University Business Leaders’ conference. this week: Colleges are seriously struggling to hire and retain employees.

The conference, held outside of Denver, featured a number of sessions focused on the challenges of staffing in a new era of work reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic. Common issues include employees leaving for better pay, increased competition from the corporate sector, demands for remote work, and rigid hiring policies that prevent institutions from recruiting and retaining talent even though vacancies persist.

The problems

Higher education, like many industries, turned to remote working at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many institutions shut down and moved classes online. But while most have returned to pre-pandemic normalcy, employee expectations have not.

In higher education as elsewhere, the traditional office environment has fallen out of favor with many workers. Rampant inflation and skyrocketing gas prices added to employee frustration with the old way of doing things. And depending on an employee’s job responsibilities, their physical presence may not be necessary.

“One argument I’ve heard recently was, ‘I drive to work to go on Zoom,'” Gerald Hector, senior vice president for administration and finance at the University of Central Florida, said during the interview. ‘a panel.

But allowing an employee to work remotely, even though all work can be done online, is a failure for many colleges. Some NACUBO conference officials cited resistance among key administrators, but legal concerns also factored into the discussion.

Eileen Goldgeier, vice president and general counsel at Brown University, wondered if a college would fall under the jurisdiction of another state if it allowed employees to work there. Goldgeier added that some state laws favor employees, others favor employers.

State laws can also create additional regulations and headaches for employers. For example, some states require a weekly wage, work-from-home allowance, and mandatory training on topics such as harassment and discrimination, to name a few.

There is also the question of who can work remotely. Depending on their tasks, some employees can work from anywhere without any loss of productivity. Others, however, may need to be in the office to meet with students, employees, or other constituents, giving them limited remote work opportunities.

Goldgeier urged colleges to carefully review their job descriptions and the promises they make to employees. “Are you promising you can work remotely or hybrid is forever? she asked.

Remuneration was another topic that loomed large at NACUBO. According to live polls conducted during multiple panels, most attendees were unconvinced of their institution’s ability to compete for the staff their college needs or its strategies for attracting talent. Many cited compensation as a factor.

“Salt Lake City is a very urban environment where McDonald’s spends almost as much as some of our entry-level products. [positions]said panelist Jeff Herring, director of human resources at the University of Utah, citing the competitive salary race for talent in the private sector.

The solution may seem obvious: raise wages. Yet when attendees on a NACUBO conference panel asked whether institutions are changing their compensation strategies to keep employees, the response was anemic, with only about a quarter of attendees raising their hands.

Beyond the discussion at NACUBO, a new survey of college leaders conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Huron Consulting Group found “shallow and weak” candidate pools for the openings. According to the survey, 78% of executives reported fewer applications for open positions over the past year, and 82% said they received “fewer applications from qualified candidates.”

The solutions

The higher education sector is not alone in struggling to fill vacancies. Allison Vaillancourt, NACUBO panelist and vice president of the Segal Group, a human resources consulting firm, pointed out that there are almost twice as many vacancies in the US economy, or 11.5 million, than there are unemployed, about six million.

Vaillancourt also cited data from the Society for Human Resource Management showing that the average quit rate among workers aged 30 to 45 was 20% higher in 2021 than in 2020, indicating that staffing issues are getting worse. extend well beyond entry level positions to more experienced positions. .

Citing 2021 Pew research, Vaillancourt noted that the top reasons employees quit are low pay, lack of opportunity for advancement, feeling disrespected at work, lack of flexible hours. and low benefits.

Vaillancourt, alongside her colleague Helena Rodrigues, vice president and director of human resources at the University of Arizona, highlighted a number of ways in which higher education offers juxtaposed pros on the other hand, which can alienate job seekers. Colleges offer good health insurance, for example, but low salaries. Similarly, strong pension plans make it easy for employees to save for retirement, but many cannot even repay the student loans they have taken out. And few colleges offer help paying off that debt. When participants were asked if their institutions offered student loan repayment assistance, almost no hands went up.

Another issue raised by Vaillancourt and Rodrigues was the glacial pace of hiring in higher education. While the industry is known for its thoughtful hiring practices, job seekers have often changed their minds by the time a college is ready to submit an offer, they noted. Likewise, these hiring processes can be unnecessarily rigid for some entry-level positions, requiring applicants to provide materials that the private sector does not require, creating immediate barriers to entry. For example, they asked, does a cafeteria worker really need a solid resume, cover letter, and references?

When Vaillancourt and Rodrigues asked attendees if hiring practices affected their college’s ability to fill positions, about 75% of the crowd raised their hands.

The remote work debate, raised on several panels, revealed a variety of approaches and philosophies.

“The question that is on everyone’s mind all the time is the fact that much of the work in higher education can be done remotely or minimally, can be done flexibly during non-traditional working hours, done in a hybrid way or in some cases completely remotely, but are our campus communities ready for that?” Rodrigues asked. The answer, she says, is no.

On-campus leadership is part of what’s holding back remote work, Rodrigues said. Moving forward, colleges need to identify employees or departments where remote work is possible. In Arizona, she noted, that flexibility falls more to those in non-university departments.

Some colleges have looked to the corporate world to figure out how to handle remote work for out-of-state employees. For example, UCF documents note that the university “has entered into a contract with Kelly Education, which will allow departments (with proper approval) to authorize certain types of employees to provide services to the UCF who reside out of state”.

Essentially, UCF employees who are in other states are now employees of Kelly Education.

Ultimately, speakers on various NACUBO panels urged audience members to think critically about their promises to employees and establish a clear workforce strategy for the future, but also to put emphasize their values ​​in discussions about finding and retaining talented workers. Values, after all, are a major selling point for many employees in the higher education sector.

During their panel, Vaillancourt and Rodrigues highlighted a number of traditional selling points in higher education: job security, mission, work-life balance, perks, and student energy. .

“Now our question for you at this point is, does this still work? Do we still believe this today, especially given the last two and a half years of incredible disruption and the changes – the eternal changes – that we still face in terms of the workplace and the workforce?” asked Rodrigues.

In a new era, where employees have unprecedented power, colleges that want to keep up with the corporate world can no longer rely on mission-driven individuals who stick to higher education, suggested the panelists. They must listen to employee needs and then act.