Higher Ed’s Hiring Crunch Was Already Bad. It Got Worse Over the Summer.

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A trying year for hiring in higher ed only worsened over the summer, according to a survey of college leaders this month, fielded by the Chronicle with support from the Huron Consulting Group.

Of 446 respondents, 64 percent reported that hiring in July, August, and September has been more difficult compared to the rest of the year, and 32 percent said it was about the same. “The pandemic and its aftermath has created a tsunami of hiring and retention challenges that would have been unimaginable three years ago,” one leader wrote. “And I’m afraid it will get worse long before it gets better.”

The problems plaguing hiring managers are many and well-documented: For example, fewer people are applying to jobs, and institutions often aren’t able to offer them competitive salaries. As several respondents to the survey — among them presidents, directors, human-resources administrators, and chief finance and information officers — pointed out, employees’ demands for remote- and hybrid-work allowances often cause friction for campus leaders who are looking for on-campus staff members. Adding to the difficulty for at least one respondent was that human resources was among the departments experiencing understaffing, making higher ed’s notoriously slow hiring processes even more protracted.

But campus leaders noted in open-ended survey responses that market forces aren’t entirely to blame for poor results. “The excuse we hear or give ourselves for weak applicant pools or unsuccessful searches is, ‘It’s just the job market right now,’ when often it’s our hiring processes or pay structures,” one respondent wrote. “Higher education is notoriously slow to react to the pressures of the job market that demand higher pay, compared to our private-industry competition for skilled labor.”

Part of the difficulty may be the transitional state in which higher ed finds itself. Most campuses have welcomed students back for in-person instruction but haven’t yet figured out how to balance in-person and remote-work capabilities for a staff work force that’s eager to continue exercising the flexibility and freedom afforded during virtual learning. Thirty-six percent of campus leaders said their work force was operating fully in person, while 63 percent were working in a hybrid capacity. Yet some campuses have been hesitant to embrace flexible work as the way of the future, with a report from the University of Iowa declaring in April that “flexible work is not the new norm” and that “most faculty and staff roles require on-campus work that provides the residential campus experience students expect.”

The corporate world has demonstrated no such qualms, and many industry positions allow staff members to work fully remotely. Some campuses have loosened their policies; one leader said their university had shifted to fully remote work for computer programmers, for example. But while allowing remote work can help expand an applicant pool — particularly for a specialized position or one on a rural campus — it could also make retention more difficult. Wrote one respondent: “People doing fully remote work are also able to quit quickly and move on to the next remote opportunity without much consideration for the employer. We have had far more success with employees who come to the physical campus three – 10 days a month.”

An Ongoing Challenge

The survey’s results underline a frequent refrain since the pandemic prompted large-scale job losses: Administrators have more open positions and are fielding fewer applications — particularly from qualified candidates — to fill them. In a Chronicle/Huron survey this summer, nearly 80 percent of leaders said their campus has more open positions this year than last, and 84 percent said that hiring for administrative and staff jobs has been more difficult in the last year. (The two surveys had different groups of respondents, making it difficult to make direct comparisons between them.)

Fewer than half of the respondents to the more-recent survey said their campus has made progress in 2022 in solving staff-and-administrative hiring challenges, with 20 percent strongly disagreeing that that was the case. For some, the usual approaches to filling key positions have failed. One respondent’s campus had even tried bringing in hiring services to no avail: “One service told us we would not find any qualified candidates,” even though some of the unfilled jobs have regulatory-compliance duties, making filling them all the more urgent, the same person wrote.

Another leader’s campus was working on “creative ways of marketing and recruiting, but these are just beginning and we don’t know if they will work.” In the meantime, that person added, “finding the right people to apply and also having enough resources to pay them what they are requiring is a problem. When we can afford them, it causes salary compression issues.”

Certain roles have proven more difficult to fill than have others. The top five areas that posed a “serious problem” in hiring this summer were information technology, dining services, building services, financial officers, and human resources. In contrast, hiring for libraries, faculty, and research hadn’t been much of an issue, according to respondents.

Part of the difficulty administrators have faced in the last several months might be that they’re playing catch-up. Hiring freezes instituted at some campuses at the height of the pandemic have ended, and one respondent reported that budget cuts — which had been the norm for the past several years — aren’t in the forecast at their institution. But that campus still isn’t creating new positions; it’s still working on its backlog of existing openings.

Leaders were split on whether higher ed’s hiring woes will ease anytime soon. Nearly half said they didn’t think hiring for staff-and-administrative positions would be easier in 2023 than in 2022, and a third weren’t sure.

Much depends on larger market forces, respondents said. “If the economy enters a bona-fide recession, I think the hiring issues will abate,” one wrote. “If the fed engineers a ‘soft landing’ and the unemployment rate and labor force participation rates remain low, then hiring issues and wage pressures will remain into 2023.”


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