With constant headlines touting a “chronic labor shortage” and millions of “missing workers,” one might expect employers in these early 2020s to adapt the way they hire to fill the many vacancies left in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And yet, one of the most notable things about current hiring practices across professional industries is how little has changed despite the supposed labor crisis. Application acknowledgements are rare, interviews even rarer, and the process can take an exhaustingly long time. And perhaps no industry has dug their heels in and resisted change more than higher education. Despite a steady stream of articles sounding the alarm on nationwide campus staffing issues, hiring processes in higher education continue to be a labyrinthian nightmare.
Colleagues have shared hiring horror stories with me, such as receiving only 20 applications for an open position, while lamenting increasingly complex and time-consuming hiring processes that make it difficult to get commitments for interviews, much less secure actual hires. But this problem is not pandemic-induced; it has been plaguing higher education for decades. While some of the blame can be attributed to an evolution in federal and state hiring mandates for publicly-supported institutions that have added layer upon layer to the HR process, many of the hiring issues are spread across public and private institutions alike and have become endemic to the culture of higher education. What exactly is happening and what can be done to improve the experience for schools and applicants alike?
CBSN. (2021, November 8). About 7 million workers missing from U.S. economy as labor shortage persists. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/video/labor-shortage-7-million-workers-missing-from-us-economy/
Problem #1: The Search Committee
A little over twenty years ago, I got my foot in the door at a community college by interviewing once with just the hiring manager. Those days are long gone. Candidates must now face a months-long gauntlet that usually involves a daunting, multi-step application process, a preliminary phone screen interview, and then two or more rounds of in-person or virtual interviews with groups of campus partners, many of whom will never be interacted with again even if hired. Behold the search committee – a group purposefully drawn from multiple departments and varying levels of responsibility, with the positive intent to lessen bias and gain consensus through differing perspectives. Clearly well-intentioned, the search committee model has unfortunately devolved into a cumbersome and often unnecessarily large entity that by its very nature protracts the search process by weeks, if not months. Even the simple act of coordinating calendars to review applications can take an inordinate amount of time. No longer reserved for leadership positions, the search committee is now used to fill even the most entry-level of positions, with a staggering time commitment and stamina required of both applicants and committee members alike.
The great irony of this hiring structure is that it likely disadvantages the very applicants it is supposed to help. Who can afford to continually take time off from their current job – potentially risking what they already have – to go through these lengthy processes that may or may not result in an offer? The structure favors people who are already in flexible positions with generous leave allowances, support for childcare, etc. Even as schools now rightly focus on much-needed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, they should be concerned about the negative impact these complex, multi-layered hiring processes have on them.
Problem #2: Low Pay, “Great Benefits”
Many schools are still living in the glory days of being an industry of choice due to the reputation of good pay, great benefits, and excellent work-life balance. While some of that remains true, industry pay has diminished substantially over time, particularly at public institutions where budgets routinely get hijacked by political infighting in state legislatures and rarely include money for pay increases. And there is an overreliance on “great benefits” (such as better-than-average leave time and low-cost insurance) that has not truly evolved. As Karyn Adams, Principal and Creative Director at HA ThirtyOne, quite correctly points out, there are a whole host of innovative new benefits the industry could be offering to attract and retain talent. Added flexibility for remote or hybrid work, sabbaticals, or even smaller, but still tangible, benefits like free parking and gym use (which faculty & staff must pay for on many campuses), could be leveraged to bolster total compensation packages. Competitive salaries, however, continue to be a primary way to get and keep the best and brightest. But pay has become so low that it is not uncommon to see job postings for mid-level leadership positions requiring advanced degrees plus 5-10 years of higher ed experience offering salaries less than $50k per year. This is a huge problem.
The low-pay, great-benefits conundrum is openly acknowledged by a human resources professional in a recent article on HigherEdJobs.com. It is a particularly noteworthy read, as she defends not posting salary information and expecting candidates to “do their own research” and “be fair” with salary expectations. But in the very same piece, the author acknowledges “inequalities in pay” and that “salaries may not be in alignment with the market.” To have these expectations of potential employees is simply unacceptable and has undoubtedly contributed to the high turnover rates throughout the industry. I genuinely believe that most people choose to work in higher education because they are mission-driven and deeply satisfied by the impact of their work. But people also deserve to be paid fairly. You can’t pay your mortgage with “great benefits.”
Problem #3: The most overly-credentialed industry?
I once saw a job posting for a student support services position at a local university that listed a preference for a Ph.D. (!) but with a starting salary of $40k – I forwarded this egregious posting to several friends after my bitter laughter ceased. But this is increasingly the norm in higher education. A master’s degree has become the bare minimum needed for almost any career path in higher education and is often required even for entry-level positions. These credentials do not guarantee better pay but they do give an applicant a big advantage in getting an interview invite or a job offer. Credentials have become so important that they often supersede deep experience, disadvantaging industry veterans when it comes to promotions (one of the only viable avenues to elevate one’s salary). It is a vicious cycle that traps long-time employees in their existing positions and salary bands unless they seek degrees they do not really need to do their jobs. It also devalues experience to a frightening degree, robbing schools of developing talent within their own ranks. Worst of all, schools increasingly favor a Master’s in Higher Education for most positions, which narrows the pool of desirable candidates considerably (yet again, working against DEI efforts).
So what can be done about these issues?
They are but a few of the persistent problems in hiring – and ultimately, retention – on college campuses. I propose the following solutions as a starting place:
- Radically simplify searches for most positions (no more than three people on a committee, no more than two layers of interviews)
- Make salaries transparent and eliminate the guesswork; close pay gaps on campus, where pay for similar positions varies wildly across departments; in the rare event that raises are given, change them from flat-percentages (which widen pay gaps further by disproportionately benefiting higher-salaried professionals) to inverted-percentages that do more to help elevate lower-salaried staff.
- Stop the credential madness! Requiring advanced degrees for entry-level and mid-level positions harms DEI hiring efforts and is truly unnecessary. Entry-level positions in particular should not require or expect advanced degrees plus years of experience, an increasing trend that openly defies the notion of “entry-level.” Favor experience and results over credentials for mid- and higher-level positions. Schools will be richer for including people from more diverse educational backgrounds.
Gina Ingraham is a higher education career veteran, with 20+ years of experience in financial aid, admissions, and academic advising. She believes deeply in the power of education to transform lives. She also believes deeply in the power of the Oxford comma.