The same problem is of course afflicting the world outside of academe. Employers in numerous industries, including food services and retail, are finding it almost impossible to find workers to fill open spots.
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The same problem is of course afflicting the world outside of academe. Employers in numerous industries, including food services and retail, are finding it almost impossible to find workers to fill open spots. People are leaving jobs at record rates, and while companies are willing to hire, potential employees are reluctant to return for a variety of reasons, including the risk of contracting Covid-19, difficulty securing reliable child care, and the lack of sufficient wages. It is clear now that higher ed is not immune from this Great Resignation sweeping across America.
This perhaps comes as a surprise to some college hiring officials. For a long time, colleges have operated under the assumption that they can easily replace people. And until recently, that was true. Colleges were viewed as places where employees can enact their values, where jobs were spared the ravages of recessions, and where deep relationships can be forged with students and colleagues. When someone left a job, institutions would post the opening and often receive more than enough applicants, especially for faculty positions. Why try hard to retain someone if you can always count on a deep pool of applicants?
That rosy vision of higher education was already starting to sour prior to the pandemic. And after the last two years, it isn’t safe to assume we can field the same numbers of applicants. Educators across the country are under attack for teaching history, supporting public health, and generally wanting to stay alive. It’s not impossible to imagine these dynamics dissuading talented doctoral students from pursuing faculty roles. I’ve been interviewing college leaders as part of my research, and many of them expect we’ll see a wave of people stepping down from leadership roles — and few people eager to replace them. As someone who works in a program to prepare future college administrators, I have a pretty good gauge on current interest in the field. It’s been tepid as of late, and I can’t help but wonder when — or if — it will recover.
That’s largely because employee morale at colleges is tanking. Some in the industry have told me it’s the lowest they’ve ever seen. There are several likely reasons for it, including low pay and frustration that administrations aren’t taking health concerns of frontline workers during the pandemic seriously enough. But perhaps the biggest cause for the drop in morale is understaffing. Higher-education workers are exhausted from years of employment rolls that aren’t just lean — they’re malnourished. And while it is possible for institutions to be overly lean at all levels, I see it most acutely in roles that are vital to student success and institutional operations, such as academic advisers, financial-aid counselors, mental-health professionals, librarians, and departmental administrative assistants.
Higher-education workers are exhausted from years of employment rolls that aren’t just lean — they’re malnourished.
Understaffing isn’t the same as labor shortages. I see labor shortages as colleges not having enough people because they haven’t been able to recruit and hire them. Labor shortages are, in the eyes of institutions, a problem they are trying to fix and hopefully one that is short-term. This doesn’t mean labor shortages are accidental. There are a number of possible drivers of labor shortages from low wages and poor working conditions to difficulties faced by employees in getting to and from work. Labor shortages might call to mind low-wage hourly workers, but it’s entirely possible for colleges to struggle to fill salaried positions, too, if the pay and job structure aren’t attractive. Think about recent failed searches at your institution as people pulled out or accepted other offers.
Understaffing, by contrast, is more noxious. It is when institutions don’t have enough people because they have purposefully decided not to hire enough. It is more of a response or strategy and is often long-term. It would be better from a performance standpoint for the college to hire more people, but it has instead accepted what the sociologists Laura T. Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen describe as suboptimization. For some colleges, like the regional public universities I study, it has been a response to budget cuts. They are lean by virtue of external pressures, and we’d likely see much better institutional performance if they had resources to hire more people. Others have resources to prevent understaffing but have elected to direct those resources to other things, like the pursuit of growth or prestige.
Understaffing is particularly pernicious because it can have a destabilizing effect on an organization. Some projects fail to move forward without enough people to propel them, or units find themselves in a holding pattern, waiting for key positions to get filled. And sometimes understaffing can beget labor shortages. A simple example of this can be seen in efforts to find people to fill a search committee. When understaffing meets the Great Resignation, you get a potentially high number of search committees forming simultaneously without enough people with the time or energy to serve on them. Human-resources offices have been thrust into a monumental challenge, and many of them are understaffed. In this way, understaffing can create weaknesses in systems that undermine other recruiting and hiring efforts.
All of this leads to overworked and unhappy employees. Unfortunately, many institutions aren’t doing a good enough job of finding out how their workers are feeling. In the interviews I’ve done, I’ve asked people if their institutions are asking them about what they have experienced, how they are thinking about their jobs, and what they want from their workplace moving forward. Shockingly few were aware of any efforts.
A more pessimistic explanation is that institutions aren’t simply ignorant when it comes to employee concerns — they are indifferent. I’ve lost count of the number of workers in higher education — mostly in student affairs and business services — who have told me they feel like they could quit today and their employer wouldn’t care. Two people even told me they offered to give exit interviews so they could explain why they were leaving and their institutions didn’t take them up on the offer.
The labor shortages won’t last forever, but a lot of people don’t see working in higher education as desirable as it once was. People are tired of being squeezed. My biggest worry — apart from the long-term loss of talent and institutional knowledge — is that colleges aren’t taking advantage of this moment to learn. “Other duties as assigned” has long been shorthand for the extra work built into higher-education jobs, but after the last two years, volunteering on nights and weekends in the dining hall is a bridge too far. A university that has been listening and learning would know that.