5 Trends in Higher Education Employment

Linda Francis
May 25, 2022

Institutes of higher education have experienced significant changes during the pandemic. Those trends in higher education employment are shaping how HR teams provide the support, opportunities and programs the workforce needs to drive successful student learning outcomes.

Many higher education workforce concerns, such as burnout and poor retention, were brewing for a long time before being brought to the surface by COVID-19. Others, such as the shift to remote and blended learning, were on the horizon, but their arrival was drastically accelerated by the pandemic. Responding to these challenges has set precedents for managing the higher education workforce.

Here are five current trends in higher education employment and how to implement them at your institution.

Promoting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a priority for many higher education institutions. As student enrollment continues to become more diverse, it’s increasingly important for students to see diversity in faculty and staff represented at all levels of higher education, from administrative staff to full professors.

Currently, women only hold about 37% of tenured faculty positions, and that percentage declines when accounting for race and ethnicity. Overall, racial and ethnic minorities only hold one in five positions in higher education.

HR teams in institutes of higher learning are thinking more critically about diversity when it comes to sourcing, attracting and retaining faculty and staff.

Start with your job descriptions and advertisements. These aren’t always regularly updated and may not truly reflect what you need right now. Instead of descriptions with a long list of requirements, which can cause qualified candidates to self-select out before they even apply, narrow down your list to the few qualities that are most important. 

Take advantage of the trend of online learning to expand your talent search, which can help you attract a more diverse slate of candidates.

Once you attract and hire a more diverse workforce, you need to ensure an inclusive and equitable environment to retain that talent. Faculty and staff from historically excluded groups must receive the same opportunities for advancement as their peers, for example, and receive equal pay for equal work.

Before committing to any of these actions, however, it’s important to assess where your organization’s biggest problems are located and where you can create the biggest impact.

The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) has developed the DEI Maturity Index, which institutes of higher learning can use to benchmark themselves. Tools like this provide a great starting point for determining how your organization measures up against your competitors and what steps you can take to move forward.

Programs to Address Mental Health

Employee mental health is a big concern across all industries, but it’s hitting higher education especially hard. Faculty and staff are facing high levels of stress and burnout, which are taking a toll on their mental health.

Familiar higher education routines were disrupted by the pandemic, giving faculty and staff little time to recover. The workforce had to quickly shift from traditional in-person classes to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic. Time typically devoted to breaks was spent redesigning for virtual delivery, and uncertainty since then has kept the workforce in limbo. In many cases, change fatigue is beginning to set in.

Other employment factors, such as an increasing reliance on contract workers and adjunct professors, are driving burnout levels higher. These factors leave the workforce feeling drained and disengaged. Pay in higher education hasn’t kept up with the pace of inflation, CUPA-HR research reports, which could be adding financial strain to an already long list of stressors the higher education workforce is facing.

HR teams in higher education must take steps to address these factors and to provide resources for mental health to all members of the workforce, including adjunct instructors. Subscribing to an online counseling service can be a relatively low-cost resource that can have a big impact. 

Work with deans and department heads to assign workloads that are manageable, which helps prevent faculty and staff from becoming overwhelmed and burned out. As your organization develops long-term plans for remote and hybrid work, communicate that information to the workforce. Transparency about workforce management decisions can reduce stress and allow faculty and staff to plan for the future.

Investing in Retention

Improved retention is a priority, as it's becoming more difficult for higher education institutions to retain faculty and staff. By and large, employment in higher education is not stable or consistent. Adjunct contracts are typically renewed on a semester basis, and the shift to remote learning has increased general turnover in higher education.

This has led to problems with staffing and succession planning. With much of your faculty and staff on the move, it’s extremely difficult to focus on succession planning for the next generation of faculty and administrators.

To fix the turnover problem, HR teams have to become more strategic about sourcing and employing talent. Assessments administered during the hiring process can help you identify candidates who share your institution’s mission, vision and values. Candidates who are strongly aligned with what your organization is trying to accomplish are more likely to remain engaged and stay longer.

Consider, too, whether you employ your talent in full-time capacity or on a contract basis. Adjuncts and contractors are less likely to remain long term and may leave to pursue work that offers more financial stability. You’re more likely to see retention go up when you focus on full-time hires with clear options for mobility within your organization.

Providing opportunities for professional development and career advancement can also help retain faculty and staff. When you can help them see their future with your institution, you have a better chance of retaining them long enough to achieve that vision. Ongoing professional development also helps you identify and upskill candidates for leadership positions.

Renewing the Focus on Employee Engagement

Many of the same factors that are driving turnover and burnout in higher education are also detracting from engagement. As stress, workloads and job instability increase, employee engagement has been trending down. When faculty and staff are disengaged or “coasting” through their work without a sense of connection or purpose, student learning outcomes tend to suffer for it.

To improve retention and nurture a greater sense of purpose among faculty and staff, higher education institutions must actively re-engage the workforce. When the workforce is more engaged, student learning outcomes are more likely to rise, too.

Many of the same solutions you might implement for increasing retention and improving workforce mental health can also drive higher engagement. Regularly assessing workloads and providing opportunities and direction for career development can decrease turnover and help support mental health and wellness. 

Connection and purpose are important keys to engagement. Many faculty and staff enter the higher education workforce with a passion and a purpose, but that’s often whittled away by stressors and other factors. To rekindle that passion, help faculty and staff align their daily tasks with the institution’s mission, vision and values.

Redesigning for Remote and Hybrid Work

The learning landscape has changed for good. More higher learning institutions are offering fully remote or blended learning opportunities, with many faculty and staff also working remotely or in a hybrid environment.

Students at community colleges are more likely to prefer remote learning, with many juggling child care obligations and multiple jobs in addition to their education. Online courses offer more flexibility, making education more accessible for many community college students. While all institutes of higher learning are adapting to remote and blended learning, HR teams at community colleges will likely lead the charge in setting best practices for employment in this environment.

Now that we’re out of crisis mode, colleges and universities are developing their long-term work models. HR plays a significant role in advising organizations on the best course of action while preparing faculty and staff to adjust to these changes.

Higher education institutions have to set standards for managing a hybrid workforce, where some people are completely remote while others work in a hybrid model. In a sense, higher education has always been hybrid, with many instructors completing course design and grading activities remotely. The primary difference now is the amount of teaching that happens virtually instead of on campus.

Think critically about your talent strategy moving forward. Will you only assign virtual courses to adjunct professors? Or will you have fully remote faculty, who teach their entire course load and keep their office hours virtually? Or will you have full-time faculty teaching a mix of remote, blended and in-person courses?

Answering these questions can help you develop your talent acquisition strategy and can prompt more specific questions regarding compensation and benefits, retention and internal mobility.

Creating a Brighter Future for the Higher Education Workforce

It’s important to remain in touch with members of your workforce. Close communication through one-on-one check-ins, focus groups and surveys will help you determine which problems to address first. Identify where the smallest or least resource-intensive actions can create the biggest impact, then begin designing a better future for your higher education workforce.

By tapping into these five trends in higher education employment, you can address several of the many challenges facing your organization. Taking small steps to incorporate one or two of these trends into your talent strategy can make a big difference in the lives of your faculty and staff.

Linda Francis
VP of Professional Services with over 20 years of management consulting, project management, and professional services experiences for software delivery and implementation projects across industries.

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