Combatting the great resignation in higher education

An empty university auditorium.

In this piece:

You’ve probably heard a fair amount about the “great resignation.” If you’re just getting back from an 18-month digital detox retreat, here’s what you missed: The great resignation is an ongoing economic trend in which employees around the country are voluntarily leaving their jobs. Some reasons include wage stagnation, job dissatisfaction and a lack of flexible work policies.

Although the great resignation affects every sector of the market, its roots are in academia. Anthony Klotz, a professor at Texas A&M, first introduced the term in May 2021, when he predicted the mass exodus.

As we now know, his prediction was correct: 47.9 million workers quit their jobs that year, an average of nearly 4 million Americans each month.

That’s the highest average on record. What’s more, the trend shows no sign of slowing down. Approximately 40% of American employees are currently considering quitting their jobs, and that number has remained roughly the same for months.

Colleges and universities aren’t immune to these recent retention and turnover issues.

Nearly 80% of provosts say faculty members are leaving at higher or significantly higher rates than in the past. But why? And what can institutions do to combat the impact of the great resignation?

Let’s dive deeper into these questions and offer guidance on how higher education can come out of this challenging time stronger and more resilient than ever.

A university campus quad with no students or faculty.

What is causing the great resignation in academia?

The most common reasons college and university faculty and staff are leaving academia education are:

One or more of these facets can leave higher education employees feeling dissatisfied, underappreciated and demoralized. That’s when they start to consider leaving their current role — at your institution or in higher education as a whole.

Burnout

Simply put, educators — especially women — are overworked and overstressed. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the responsibilities handled by higher ed faculty and staff skyrocketed nearly overnight.

Educators had to learn to teach virtually and completely adjust their lesson curricula to accommodate a radically different modality. They saw first-hand how the coronavirus ravaged the physical and emotional well-being of students and students’ families. And through it all, staff had to sustain academic rigor and integrity while ensuring students received individualized attention and care.

Studies show that students are beginning to notice increased instances of burnout among their professors, including appearing disorganized and taking more time than usual to grade and revert assignments. Burnout is also making it more difficult to find volunteers to peer-review article submissions, negatively impacting institutions’ research and development initiatives.

Students see signs that professors are struggling. Almost one-third of students have at least one current professor who appears disorganized and stressed.
$Inside Higher Education survey https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/05/20/survey-students-want-connections-professors-may-not-initiate-them$

Low compensation and career progression

Educators have probably heard a time or two that “The reward is helping students” and not, say, a competitive salary with a clear career path. Although focus on institutional missions is important, it cannot be the only benefit your institution offers its employees. Prioritizing short-term cost savings through low wages is likely to cost more in turnover and engagement in the long-term.

Additionally, higher ed faculty feel that requirements for advancing their careers are vaguely outlined. Offering a clear, attainable career journey can go a long way in making staff feel supported in their roles and recognized for their achievements. As a result, you can expect greater employee engagement and job satisfaction — benefits that ripple out into improved student experience, too.

Lack of flexible work options

One Inside Higher Education survey found that 32% of respondents who are thinking of quitting are doing so because they want flexible work schedules. The vast majority (71%) of respondents said that most of their work can be done remotely — even though 63% reported that they are working completely or mostly on-site.

Countless organizations and companies have adopted digital technologies like the cloud and secure content portal systems to enable staff to work from anywhere just as productively as they do in an office setting. Higher education institutions can adopt these new solutions to attract and retain high-quality faculty and staff and to reduce turnover.

Students walk from one class to the next across a catwalk in a university building. Photo taken in a short time lapse.

Reducing the impact of the great resignation

Some organizations have experienced a “domino effect” when it comes to resignations. For example, if one employee is intent on leaving they can overtly or subconsciously influence others to leave or want to leave.

This phenomenon is especially commonplace when a star employee or well-liked and respected manager decides to leave the organization.

Stopping this turnover contagion before it starts means offering a strong culture that empowers individual well-being and collective achievement.

Here are some pointers to helping your institution weather periods of high turnover and improve retention of high-quality staff.

Support faculty and staff well-being

To ensure quality teaching, research and service, higher education leadership must help their staff learn best practices for handling occupational stress and burnout. Start a dialog at your institution, inviting two-way communication or even anonymous input so that staff and faculty feel truly heard about what they want and need.

Equally important is providing the time and resources necessary for employees to seek out and actively improve their physical, mental and emotional health. Small investments in wellness resources can have a profound positive effect for staff and students alike for years to come.

Assist career progression and support

Laying out clear opportunities for advancement is hugely beneficial for staff, including their level of engagement. Research shows that career development is one of the best ways to help disengaged workers become more effective and to boost engagement rates. And engagement is tightly correlated with retention.

  • Does your institution clearly define what is required for career advancement?
  • Are dedicated mentors available for those who could benefit from such a relationship?
  • Does administration take diversity, equity and inclusion seriously and actively work toward leveling the playing field so that every employee has a chance at achieving success as they define it?

Employ professional services to extend IT capabilities

Considering there are 10.7 million job openings around the United States, many organizations feel the effects of gaps in skills and talents. If your institution has a talent gap, it’s important to address it instead of merely reassigning those critical tasks to other people or departments. That can cause friction and confusion and increase dissatisfaction in an already-overworked employee base.

Tech workers, even in academia, have been uniquely susceptible to the great resignation. Tech workers are in high demand, and all companies — in and out of higher education — are competing for top talent. And if these tech specialists aren’t fulfilled at your institution, they might start looking for greener pastures; 72% of tech and IT employees are considering quitting their jobs within the next year, compared to 55% of the overall U.S workforce.

Bolstering your existing IT staff with third-party professional services can help fill the gap without adding to your headcount. It can also ensure your current IT staff aren’t feeling burnout from busy putting out fires that take them away from the projects and tasks they truly enjoy completing. Three options are managed services, staff augmentation and technical account management.

Let’s explore what these support systems look like and under which scenarios they might be a good fit for your institution.

Managed services

Managed services provides a simple way to outsource system administration, solution maintenance and ongoing configuration optimization of your solutions, along with advanced enhancements such as integration, development and automation. A team of experts works in collaboration with your organization to support and advance your solutions, empowering your team to focus on more rewarding and valuable work.

Managed services is best for institutions that want a long-term, ongoing support model offered through a monthly subscription service.

Staff augmentation

Staff augmentation services temporarily reinforce your in-house team with experts who can add value to your organization from day one. Think of it as having an additional team member (or more) who can assist, perform and manage your upgrade effort or any other technical aspect of your operations. Like a traditional team member, you’ll have full control over their hours, tasks and priorities.

This approach is best if you want a designated resource to help execute on a project that is guided by your team within defined hours.

Technical account managers

Technical account management involves integrating a dedicated expert (a technical account manager, or TAM) into your team. This professional then works with you to develop a deep understanding of your needs to provide informed guidance and advocacy. Your TAM will assist in critical situations and escalations, ensuring timely resolution and high customer satisfaction.

This type of professional support is best for institutions with large, complex software deployments that require dedicated, long-term, technical-level support.

No matter what your administrative or technical need, there is a professional service offering that can suit your institution’s objectives.

Positioning your institution for future-proof success

Anthony Klotz was right: The great resignation was a disruptive moment. It forced organizations across disciplines to fundamentally rethink their workplace policies and structure. Higher education institutions can no longer assume that any one benefit, perk or even salary will be enough to attract and retain the faculty they need.

Instead, they need to think more holistically about how they support their staff.

Building a culture of comprehensive well-being, career opportunities and exceptional faculty output is paramount to your institution’s success. With engaged employees and the ability to tap into expert resources as needed, you can be prepared for any workforce trend the future has in store.


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Cara McFarlane is Hyland’s sales enablement solution marketing manager. Her mission is to effectively position Hyland as the leading content services platform within financial services, insurance, government, higher education, and emerging markets by sharing best practices that accelerate organization’s digital strategy across their enterprise. Cara leverages her 19 years’ experience in the content and process automation software industry to help lead Hyland’s market vision and roadmap. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa.
Cara McFarlane

Cara McFarlane

Cara McFarlane is Hyland’s sales enablement solution marketing manager. Her mission is to effectively position Hyland as the leading content services platform within financial services, insurance, government, higher education, and... read more about: Cara McFarlane