Nationwide Staffing Shortages and the Demand for Higher Ed Gigs

Why does the nation’s employee shortage seem to exist in every place but higher ed?

June 22, 2021

There is a debate going on if the U.S. is in the midst of a labor shortage. David Leonhardt of The New York Times makes a persuasive case that the problem is not too few workers but too little pay. His solution for labor shortages is to pay people more and give them better benefits. He argues that prices have been artificially depressed by expectations of low costs and high corporate profits.

I’m firmly with Leonhardt here, but even if employee wages start to rise, the reality is that most employers (at least where I live) will not be able to attract enough workers.

At the same time that many employers can’t find workers, higher ed seems to have too many willing candidates.

Yes, individual units/centers/departments/schools indeed risk losing their best people. Overwhelmingly, however, if a talented worker (particularly a nonfaculty educator) leaves a particular job, they will do so to move to another role within higher ed.

Over the years, I’ve been on many staff searches. It may be that my institution is a particularly attractive place to work. (True, it is gorgeous here.) But there are always numerous applicants for every search.

Whenever I’m on a search committee, I find myself grateful that I’m not applying for the job. So many candidates are extraordinarily brilliant, experienced and frankly fabulous. How can any single academic job seeker (even nonfaculty job seeker) compete against the army of superqualified applicants?

The mismatch between demand and supply in faculty jobs is, of course, exponentially worse. Landing a tenure-track gig in many disciplines is like winning PowerBall.

HGTV should do a spinoff show from My Lottery Dream Home called My Lottery Tenure-Track Job. Oh, David!

Why are there so few higher ed jobs and so few workers for so many jobs outside higher ed?

Some of the answers to this question are obvious. Help Wanted signs are mostly appearing in lower-paid service sector jobs. The higher ed work that everyone seems to want is professional and academic.

Still, the country is in the middle of an epic nursing shortage.

Many people seem to want to work in higher ed (although, again, retaining the best people is a challenge) -- but few seem to get as excited about jobs in health care (besides docs) and the skilled trades.

Are higher ed jobs simply better than other gigs that pay commensurate wages? (Here again, I’m thinking of many nonphysician health-care jobs -- but plumbers and electricians seem to do pretty well for themselves.)

Is there something about working in education that makes people want to work in education? (To ask that question is to answer it.)

Higher ed jobs are desirable in an age of diminishing career opportunities in other mission-driven industries (journalism, publishing, etc.).

Or perhaps I have this all wrong. It may be that there are so many applicants for each higher ed job because higher ed is not creating enough jobs.

Colleges and universities have been reluctant to create both tenure-track faculty lines and permanent staff jobs. The cost disease continues to bite, while state dollars and the number of young adults continue to decline.

For both staff and faculty, the higher ed understaffing trend has been building so slowly for so many years that few have noticed.

We tend to think that our department/unit/program/center is understaffed for local and idiosyncratic reasons. All the while, we fail to realize that higher ed understaffing results from long-term structural trends combined with some awful political decisions.

If higher ed committed to adequate staffing and a return to relying on the tenure track, would the demand and supply for higher ed jobs begin to even out?

Why does the nation’s employee shortage seem to exist in every place but higher ed?

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Joshua Kim

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