Title

Higher Ed’s Invisible Understaffing Epidemic

Too few people.

October 19, 2021
 
 

The higher ed press is full of stories of campus labor shortages. Mostly, these articles focus on staff shortages in student-facing operations, such as dining services, residence halls and recreation centers.

What is absent from these stories is an analysis of the broader postsecondary workforce. Are higher education staffing shortages a phenomenon limited to only the most visible areas of campus operations? Or is understaffing now endemic across the entire higher education ecosystem?

I hypothesize that higher education is in the midst of an invisible understaffing epidemic.

Invisible because everyone in higher education thinks that the understaffing they are personally navigating is a local story. We live and work in our environments, so we cannot comprehend the common trends and shared realities.

Part of the challenge in recognizing higher ed's endemic understaffing is that we have no clear definition of what it means to be understaffed.

  • We assume that it is normal to work nights and weekends to keep up with all the work.
  • We see that our departments, centers, units and divisions are doing more work now with fewer people.
  • We know that tasks that were once considered "entire jobs" have been absorbed into existing staff's "one of many" responsibilities.
  • We no longer wonder why we spend so much time on scheduling, logistics and coordination -- as we assume that administrative support is an unaffordable luxury.
  • We know that if just one or two members of our unit/department/center need to leave work for an extended time for a health issue or family emergency, there is little in the way of resiliency or redundancy built into the system.
  • We have somehow internalized that working so hard, at nights and on weekends and even maybe over vacations, is actually a good thing -- as our hard work both contributes to the mission of our institutions and demonstrates our value to our organizations.

The financial pressures that almost every college and university now face are immense. A decades-long trend toward public disinvestment, combined with unfavorable demographic forces and rising institutional costs, have all coalesced to challenge higher education's business model.

The response of colleges and universities to diminishing revenues and rising costs have been, by and large, to attempt to constrain staffing costs.

On the faculty side, we have seen this all play out with the well-known trend towards adjunctification and away from the creation of tenure-track lines.

Much less visible is what is happening to staff. As the demands of running a 24-7-365 digital/global/competitive institution have grown, the number of people who meet these demands has not grown commensurately.

Colleges and universities now must fight for every new student. Retaining the students we admit takes an enormous amount of effort. New educational programs, from new master's to new nondegree programs, require intense effort to launch and run. All of this work is done by people. Faculty, yes. But also staff.

In higher ed, staffing up seldom comes prior to revenues. Most new things at colleges and universities are bootstrapped. The people already doing the "regular" work also get the new thing going. Only after a program/degree/initiative is bringing in new dollars are new people hired.

Lean staffing in higher ed is the rule. We are at a point, however, where higher ed people can't work any harder.

Colleges and universities would be wise to consider the consequences of a financial model that depends on minimizing labor costs. Just as "just in time" manufacturing has proven a failure in many industries when supply chains get disrupted, a lean staffing model can cause higher ed operations to be brittle and ineffective.

Can we imagine a different higher ed staffing model? One where colleges and universities actively look to create a bit of cushion in the system by hiring more early-career and young professionals into our schools, departments, units and centers?

Are you overworked because there are not enough people in your school/department/unit/center to do all the work?

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