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Opinion: The Search Is on for IT Talent in Higher Ed

To fill critical IT vacancies in an increasingly competitive job market, colleges and universities may need to broaden their searches, hire from within, and review and update requirements for hire.

A finger about to press a red keyboard button that says "now hiring."
The demand for finding the right talent to be part of an IT team in higher education has never been more challenging. The pandemic, coupled with dynamically shifting world economics, has put enormous strains on retaining existing staff while recruiting new employees. The migration to a world of digital transformation and wide use of artificial intelligence has made finding the ideal IT workforce much more difficult. Where can colleges and universities find top-notch technology professionals, what skills should they possess, and can they be effectively recruited to join the team and stay? Here are some important hiring issues and strategies that higher ed technology leaders may want to consider.


When attempting to hire IT staff, many corporations and institutions are experiencing a gap in employee skills. This gap was evident in surveys conducted just prior to the pandemic. In May 2019, a McKinsey Global Survey of executives and managers found that nearly 90 percent of respondents said their organizations “either face skill gaps already or expect gaps to develop within the next five years.” The pandemic only exacerbated the problem, with employees either requiring remote work, migrating to higher-salary corporate jobs or retiring. The mass exodus from higher education made it even more difficult to find and retain highly qualified IT staff.


This hiring challenge is expected to continue for years. In an April 2022 blog post for the talent management company Esteemed, marketing consultant Matt Brennan summarized, “A recent survey from CompTIA found that there were about 4.9 million tech position openings and almost 400,000 openings in February of 2022. The problem is a shortage of qualified candidates to fill these positions. The U.S. will be short 1.2 million engineers by 2026, if current trends continue, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

University and college HR departments may need to rethink their typical job search strategies and work with administration officials to consider updated hiring practices for technology vacancies. Formalizing remote work practices, improving compensation offers and reducing the recruitment time and associated red tape for hiring tech employees are important considerations. In some ways, higher education is not only working against competing offers of a prospective employee, but HR departments are working against the clock to quickly secure an ideal employee and hire them.

That companies and institutions are struggling with high technology employee turnover rates is not new. In a 2019 guest commentary for the biz-tech publication Information Week, President Zoe Morris of the recruiting firm Nelson Frank wrote, “Today, tech has the highest employee turnover of any business sector, with a staggering churn rate of 13.2 percent. Even if companies do manage to attract and onboard a great candidate, chances are they won’t stick around for long.”

But the trend has progressed as technological innovations and the push for digitalization have required high-quality IT staff. The IT consulting firm Gartner emphasized this in a 2022 report on emerging tech talent hubs for IT. In reviewing talent hubs worldwide, Gartner pointed out, “The demand for IT talent has increased exponentially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. High attrition rates and the need for IT talent to support digitalization initiatives is creating a hyper-competitive IT talent market.”


For higher education, the search for ideal IT staff may require a wider search of prospective employees coupled with a refined search process. In 2023, with economic uncertainty in the air along with corporate layoffs, some college recruiters are hoping to lure technology workers back to higher education jobs. In a recent piece for Educause, Kate Hash, assistant vice chancellor for customer experience and engagement at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, suggested that “for tech workers who may be burned out and feeling like a ‘cog in the machine,’ higher education can offer something different. Our IT teams play both direct and indirect roles in groundbreaking research and transformative academic pursuits. For potential talent who are alumni of our respective institutions, highlighting the mission can be a unique draw back to a community that shaped them.”

For some IT employees, this may be a refreshing change of pace from hectic and uncertain times in a corporate environment. The salary may not be competitive, but a positive work environment and clear work purpose may be worth it for the employee.

For higher education to compete for competent IT staff, it may be important for IT team leaders to review and update requirements for hire. Is a four-year degree necessary, or are appropriate certifications and professional experience sufficient? This also may be the time to look internally at the organization and to “grow employees from within.”


Writing for Forbes in 2019, Forbes Council Member Jim Granat pointed out, “When an organization promotes from within, no matter the level, employees can see that their input and experience are truly valued. This can also lead to higher retention and engagement throughout the company since employees have room to grow and improve in their careers. It’s also a positive signal to entry-level employees interested in your company that you promote talent from within. In a tight job market, employees have the upper hand, but high morale and solid retention will help keep your organization running smoothly.” If the institution cannot afford high salaries for high-demand IT professionals, developing potential IT staff it already employs may yield long-term dividends and loyalty.

Developing talent within the institution also helps to ensure employees understand its mission, environment and staffing. Employee development benefits both the employee and the employer. As a blog post by the employee engagement company Culture Amp pointed out, employee development can “attract top talent, retain employees, engage employees and improve business performance.”


Certainly, the chapter on the post-pandemic hiring environment is still being written. In 2023, the uncertain worldwide economy, the dramatic full emergence and implementation of AI, and sophisticated cybersecurity challenges will require a host of new employee skills, hiring and retention strategies. McKinsey Global Institute speculated in 2021 about what job roles will look like in the next decade. Its research suggested the most in-demand skills for the future of work will be 1) higher cognitive, 2) social and emotional, and 3) technological, including everything from basic to advanced IT skills, data analysis and engineering. High pay is likely to follow demand for these skills.

This suggests high-tech jobs could have a prominent place in higher education. The challenge for this sector will be if institutions can create innovative search processes, provide competitive total compensation and offer engaging work environments. The clock is ticking and the search is on.
Jim Jorstad is Senior Fellow for the Center for Digital Education and the Center for Digital Government. He is a retired emeritus interim CIO and Cyber Security Designee for the Chancellor’s Office at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He served in leadership roles as director of IT client services, academic technologies and media services, providing services to over 1,500 staff and 10,000 students. Jim has experience in IT operations, teaching and learning, and social media strategy. His work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR, and he is a recipient of the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is an EDUCAUSE Leading Change Fellow and was chosen as one of the Top 30 Media Producers in the U.S.