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The Great Exodus: Is IT Talent Leaving Higher Ed?

Quality IT staff with institutional knowledge have never been more important, but without flexibility and other benefits, colleges and universities risk losing them to the private sector over salaries and stress.

The pandemic has fundamentally changed our current way of life. From vaccines to masking in public, to looking for new opportunities, to telework – all of these issues are colliding to reshape how we live, work and play. Nowhere are these challenges more dramatic than in the world of higher education. In this environment we see headlines about in-person education versus online classes, and on-premises employees versus telework. What do all of these factors mean to stressed-out IT employees, as well as to faculty members attempting to teach online and select the right tech tools?

When considering the ideal work environment of the current and post-pandemic world, IT professionals and faculty are considering higher wages, the flexibility of telework, becoming a consultant or even retiring to find a balance of work and life. Today’s job market has quickly transitioned to an employee-driven one, rather than an employer market. Retention and recruitment has become an acute problem.

The overarching attraction for employees are jobs that pay more and provide a telework option. Bruce Maas, emeritus CIO and vice provost for information technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said, “Higher education has relied on attracting people who believe in the mission, and are willing to earn lower salaries in exchange. They also like living in college towns, where the mix of diverse and highly educated people is usually higher than other locations. Private-sector telework jobs that pay much higher salaries and still allow people to live where they want are already creating pressure to retain talented higher education employees.”

The pandemic has caused faculty to reassess their careers and retirement options. According to a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education commissioned by Fidelity Investments, “On the Verge of Burnout,” “more than half (55 percent) of faculty have seriously considered either changing careers and leaving higher education or retiring early, and over a third (35 percent) of tenured faculty are considering leaving higher education for another career.”

The study also uncovered how the pandemic has affected employee mental health. Debra Frey, head of tax-exempt marketing and analytics at Fidelity Investments, said, “We were surprised to see the level of stress that many faculty members reported. A lot of that is due to feeling overworked, seeing workload increase, and work/life balance gets worse due to that stress.”

Amanda Umpierrez, in her article “Higher Education Facing Increased Turnover Due to Burnout During Pandemic” published by Plansponsor magazine, reflects on the impact of faculty leaving, and on finding a solution:

“This is especially important for retaining female faculty members, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, as many reported feeling overworked and overwhelmed, according to Fidelity. Seventy-five percent of female faculty members reported feeling stressed, and 82 percent said their workload had increased as a result of the pandemic, compared to 70 percent of their male colleagues. Additionally, 74 percent indicated their work/life balance had deteriorated in 2020.

“A Transamerica report finds the pivot to online education in the past year has augmented employee turnover, as 35 percent of higher education institutions report higher movement within their employee base. Thirty-three percent of institutions disclosed they are facing higher student-to-faculty ratios.”

How can administrators in higher education successfully manage a telework environment? Bruce Maas said, “I think you need to understand the pressures impacting each employee. Managers really need to be connected to their staff and have open channels of communication. Managers need to work with other senior leaders to address the requirements necessary for employees to be successful. There is a need for metrics that allow for performance evaluation. Metrics are the best way to demonstrate accountability.”

Effectively training managers is important to ensure a successful telework environment. Barron Koralesky, CIO at Williams College in Massachusetts, said, “In higher education, especially higher ed IT, many of our managers are promoted in part because of their technical contributions. We have always needed to devote professional development to help them grow into being good managers. As we make work time and location more flexible, we need even more training and development for our supervisors.”

So how can higher education compete with the corporate hiring environment? Higher education will likely have a difficult time matching corporate salaries, but campuses can emphasize and promote benefits, telework and a positive work environment. In the Educause article, “The Misalignment of Preferences and Realities for Remote Work,” a poll shows most higher education HR and IT employees prefer to work at least partially in a remote environment. Approximately 80 percent of both employee groups state “their ideal work arrangement is at least a partially remote environment,” with a higher percentage of IT staff (42 percent) preferring a mostly or complete remote work solution.

How does telework factor into the likelihood of leaving their current job within the next 12 months? A survey by Educause and CUPA-HR (College and University Professional Association for Human Resources) in the aforementioned article seems to show a slight majority of employees in both groups are not planning to leave their job within the year. However, approximately 40 percent are either somewhat likely, likely or very likely to leave their jobs. Survey respondents emphasized if their employer did not provide work flexibility or telework, they were more likely to look for a new job. Those with work flexibility were less likely to look for new employment. As the article concludes, “institutions that rush quickly back to the pre-pandemic norms of predominantly on-site work with few remote work opportunities risk losing talent.” Once you lose good talent, it’s hard to bring it back.

The challenge for higher education in recruiting and retaining staff seems to require a hybrid telework option, provided there is a) strong management, b) trustworthy employees and c) clear identification of job function, meaning some jobs may or may not fit in the telework model, such as help desk and networking. Coupled with attractive employment benefits, a good physical work environment, positive colleagues and attractive campus location, higher education may be able to hold the tide on a mass exodus of employees. While attractive salaries and telework are extremely popular now, this may change when the pandemic eventually subsides.
Jim Jorstad is an innovative global force on the effective use of technology in teaching, learning and research. Currently the interim CIO at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, he heads a team responsible for providing services to over 1,500 staff and 10,000 students. He has extensive experience in learning space design, strategic social media and deploying major IT technologies. His film and journalist work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR and he is the recipient of the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is also an EDUCAUSE Leading Change Fellow, one of 50 IT professionals chosen worldwide for the award.