Higher Ed’s Hiring Challenges Are Getting Worse
The hiring trouble that has plagued higher education throughout the pandemic shows no signs of abating, according to a survey this month conducted by The Chronicle, with support from the Huron Consulting Group.
In fact, the challenges appear to have gotten worse for most respondents: 62 percent of college leaders who completed the survey said that hiring for staff and administrative jobs during January, February, and March has been more difficult than it was in 2022, while 32 percent said it has been about the same. And just a quarter of respondents thought that hiring would be easier in 2023 than in 2022.
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The hiring trouble that has plagued higher education throughout the pandemic shows no signs of abating, according to a survey conducted this month by The Chronicle, with support from the Huron Consulting Group.
In fact, the challenges appear to have gotten worse for most respondents: 62 percent of college leaders who completed the survey said that hiring for staff and administrative jobs during January, February, and March had been more difficult than it was in 2022, while 32 percent said it had been about the same. And just a quarter of respondents thought that hiring would be easier in 2023 than in 2022.
In the survey’s open-ended responses, hiring managers reported taking months to fill key positions, and while some respondents said turnover isn’t as prevalent as it once was, their ability to land top talent is being dictated by candidates’ desire for hybrid and flexible work arrangements.
As leaders try to meet those demands, some are finding disengaged work forces that they worry will pose problems for recruitment and retention.
“We pay close attention to culture issues,” one leader wrote, “but in the wake of Covid and financial disruption and the labor-market trends that have followed, the challenges are huge — we’re still struggling. While I am an advocate for providing flexibility, we are not seeing/engaging with each other face-to-face enough to build truly collegial/collaborative relationships consistently.”
Another leader described the campus climate as “fractured,” explaining that “there are complaints about a lack of sense of community, but when in-person community events are put on, no one shows up.”
Leaders’ overall outlook on the hiring landscape was remarkably similar in the fall, when a previous Chronicle/Huron survey asked them to weigh how much progress they’d made in solving hiring problems. At that time, 26 percent said their institution had made strides in 2022, while in the new survey, 27 percent said they’d seen movement in 2023.
Hiring in several areas of the campus work force continues to be a challenge. Information technology remains a top priority for hiring; nearly three-quarters of respondents said landing new staff members there had been a moderate or serious problem in 2023. Dining services and building services were also in the highest demand in January, February, and March, just as they were in July, August, and September 2022.
A ‘Mind-Blowing’ Process
Karen M. Holland, executive director of human resources at Hiram College, a small, private liberal-arts institution in Ohio, said she’s been seeing fewer candidates apply for open positions, and fewer still who are qualified, echoing a complaint among hiring managers for months. Hiram has raised entry-level salaries, hoping to attract more candidates, but it has had to re-evaluate entire departments’ pay structures to deal with inequities created by those bumped-up salaries. That process, which sometimes involves retitling positions, is “mind-blowing” in its scope, Holland said.
Many colleges are making substantive pay adjustments, according to recently released data from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, which found that raises in the 2022-23 academic year were the largest recorded in the last seven years. Median pay for employees increased as much as 5.3 percent for staff members. Administrators and professionals saw 4.5- and 4.4-percent median raises, respectively, while tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members got median bumps of 2.9 and 3.2 percent. Still, the CUPA-HR analysis found, higher-ed salaries aren’t outpacing inflation, which sits at 7.1 percent.
Therein lies the challenge for recruitment. While institutions like Hiram can’t offer above-market salaries to snag star candidates, Holland has been looking for other ways to entice them. She’s recently revamped Hiram’s sick-day policy, and beginning in April, the college will offer a flexible schedule under which staff members can choose to work four 10-hour days per week instead of five eight-hour shifts. She expects that to be a big draw for candidates, 80 percent of whom she estimates ask about flexible scheduling and remote work (which Hiram offers for some employees) as part of the interview process. The flexible-work policy might not expand the pool of candidates applying for jobs at Hiram, Holland said, but she hopes it’ll keep already-interested candidates engaged with the college.
“If we said, ‘No, sorry, this is an in-person, student-facing position, and we need you to be on campus,’ I’d say there were only one in 10 that wanted to continue the conversation,” Holland said. “The rest were just like, ‘OK, thanks for calling, no longer interested.’”
One leader said another consideration may be top of mind for many candidates in early 2023: the political atmosphere. Legislation in 17 states targeting diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in higher ed has prompted some would-be employees to reconsider, said Wendy M. Hoofnagle, interim associate dean of the graduate college at the University of Northern Iowa, a public institution. Hoofnagle said she’d recently tried to hire an adjunct faculty member; despite being given the ability to teach courses they were excited about, the top candidate, a member of the LGBTQ community, decided they didn’t feel welcome enough in Iowa to accept the job offer.
“Certainly politically as well as economically, I think people are actually strongly discouraged to work for these states where it seems as though anybody who looks a little different or is a little different is not welcome,” Hoofnagle said. “People look at the trends in the state, and see which way the train is going, and decide they’re just not going to get on it.”
Most of the survey’s 840 respondents work at institutions that operate primarily in person — half said that less than 20 percent of their work force was virtual — though many offer hybrid or fully remote work to employees in certain roles, such as information technology, human resources, fund raising, and finance. In that mixed-format environment, leaders are trying harder to foster workplace culture. That includes Elizabeth Meade, president of Cedar Crest College, a private women’s institution in Pennsylvania, who said that some employees had become disengaged at the height of the pandemic. Cedar Crest has used potluck lunches, open forums with Meade and other administrators, and employee-recognition programs to combat that pattern; the college allows most employees to work remotely one day a week, a pandemic-era extension of flexibility that doesn’t apply to some fully in-person jobs like grounds management and the campus police.
It’s working, at least to some extent: While Meade still has more unfilled positions than she’d like, turnover has slowed, and what feels like a new iteration of the Cedar Crest work force has arrived. “You really are,” she said, “intentionally reforming in a new way, as a new community, with new people in it.”