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More Retirement Parties Than 20-Something Onboardings

Our aging higher ed staff and the need to recruit and nurture more early-career professionals.

June 15, 2021
 
 

When we all return to campus this academic year, I expect to be invited to more retirement parties than onboardings for 20-something academic professionals.

You?

The median age of all higher ed staff is 45. But it sure feels older.

Twenty-nine percent of staff are 55 and older. What proportion of those people will be walking out the door in the next few years is unknown, but I imagine it will be quite high.

Older colleagues are great. Academia is built on relationships, and the longer you are around, the more people you know.

What worries me is not all my gray-haired colleagues. What is more concerning is the scarcity of professional academic staff in their late 20s and early 30s.

Maybe I'm just a slow learner, but it took me about 20 years to sort of feel like I know what I'm doing in my job.

Working at the intersection of higher ed change, technology and learning is complicated. The demands seem to keep going up, while the resources to do the work are never enough.

When I speak with colleagues around the country, the overwhelming sentiment seems to be one of impending burnout. Higher ed divisions, organizations and centers are all under significant financial pressures. As staffing costs are almost always the biggest expense (often 80 percent of all spending), campus organizations tend to run lean.

The results of a reluctance to hire are twofold. First, across higher education -- there are too few people to do the work.

This staff shortage is particularly acute in my world of online education, learning design and blended learning. I imagine that your corner of higher ed (libraries, student affairs, IT, finance, etc.) is also understaffed.

The second result of not hiring is a scarcity of young hires. We are not recruiting enough young people into the various professional roles that academia depends on to run. The lack of early-career professional staff today will result in a shortage of nonfaculty leaders in the future.

The challenge, as I see it, is that nobody wants to talk about staff. Staff are seen as a cost, where faculty are viewed as an asset.

Schools celebrate the recruitment of new faculty and the creation of new faculty lines. And quite rightly. When was the last time you saw a university trumpet the creation of new nonfaculty educator positions?

More commonly, these nonfaculty educator roles (who proved critical as faculty partners in maintaining academic continuity throughout the pandemic) are hired on a "nonpermanent" basis. They are given one-year contracts, leaving it up to the leaders of the divisions that they work to find the money each year to keep them on.

One-year contracts are not a foundation for nurturing future academic leaders. If schools do not invest in their staff, the staff will not invest in the university's long-term success.

A focus of every higher leader should be cultivating the next generation of faculty and staff that will need to transform higher ed in the years to come.

We need to convince more young people that a career in higher ed is not limited to being a professor.

We need more early-career professionals choosing to work in higher ed.

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