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Higher-Ed IT Talent Management in a Post-Pandemic World

As IT careers become increasingly competitive and essential, colleges and universities must work to retain IT staff with flexibility, healthy environments and meaningful work, or risk losing them to the private sector.

IT manager
“Our people are our most important asset.” These words are often used in describing the current and future state of organizations. And they certainly ring true in university IT organizations.

The status quo of brick-and-mortar IT organizations that have most of their hardware, software and staff on premise is becoming a memory. A different set of skills is needed in the typical newer environment that leverages software, infrastructure, security and other areas “as a service.” Add in the prevalence and general success of staff working remotely during the pandemic, and the scale of recent change is far-reaching. In this context, are our people still our most important asset as we enter the post-pandemic period?

I’d expect the answer from most of us is still a resounding yes. University IT staff are highly valued. Their knowledge of, and loyalty for, their institutions is remarkable. And essential. Yet how do IT leaders manage and develop this talent in a world where staff employment expectations are often dramatically different than they were 18 months ago?

Given industry belief and evidence through experience that people are what matter most, leaders need to ensure that this value is reflected in how they recruit, develop and retain professional staff. In a world where many IT professionals can work anywhere, will they want to continue to work where they are now? To look at it from the macro level, is your organization considered an “employer of choice” within higher education, and within the IT industry? And if not, why not?

One approach for improvement is to continue to focus on the fundamentals of talent management. Everything seems to have changed, yet our core values are likely the same. People still want to do meaningful work, report to managers who treat them fairly and work in environments that respect diversity, equity and inclusion. Successful and forward-thinking leaders are focusing on all of these issues on an ongoing basis.

Universities have long had several strengths in building an outstanding staff. The strongest is often the appeal of their institution’s educational and service missions. A second is typically having many positions across campus that involve doing interesting and meaningful work. A third is often the practice of providing opportunities for student employees that demonstrate high performance and potential for full-time, entry-level professional career positions on campus.

Higher-education IT talent management has its challenges as well. Compensation is often stated as a reason to leave, as university salaries tend to lag the industry average, sometimes dramatically. Deciding to work for a university, and to stay there, is not for candidates who are looking to maximize their career earnings and other perks. This makes it even more important to have a renewed focus on recruiting and retention that effectively messages the positives of the work environment. Spotlighting the career success of staff through internal promotions can be particularly helpful, as can highlighting opportunities for tuition discounts and the overall cultural support for continuing education at many institutions.

This summer is an important time for organizations to think carefully about policies involving remote work. Lack of flexibility will provide a challenge for talent management during an already difficult time. Candidates and current staff will be aware of what competing work environments provide in terms of remote work policies. Few of us claim to know what the next 12-24 months will bring, so it’s important to stay fluid with policies, rather than rigid. And providing a more flexible work culture seems worth the effort to promote recruiting and retention.

All these issues have a strong human-resources element to them. Leveraging the campus HR organization in coordination with local IT HR professionals can provide valuable guidance. Talent management challenges and opportunities entering the post-pandemic time period will rarely be unique to a particular institution. University IT organizations can and should avail themselves of HR best practices to improve outcomes.

Working within higher education can be a path to a meaningful and rewarding career, and the importance of effectively messaging the positives of campus workplaces at this critical point in time can’t be overstated. Leaders that place talent management as a top priority demonstrate through their actions that they truly believe “our people are our greatest asset.”
Mark Askren is an IT executive and leadership coach with 35 years of higher education experience. He most recently served as Vice President and CIO for the University of Nebraska. During this period he was elected to the EDUCAUSE Board of Directors, served as chair of the Internet2 Community Engagement Program Advisory Group, and was a member of the Big Ten Academic Alliance for IT. Prior to that he served as Assistant Vice Chancellor for Administrative Computing Services at the University of California, Irvine, where he was also a member of the University of California’s Information Technology Leadership Council. Mark also held the positions of Assistant Vice President for Application Development and Data Management at the University of Illinois, and Assistant Dean for Information Technology at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.