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A recent CUPA-HR survey reported deep interest in “moving on” from positions in higher ed. Of the more than 3,800 higher education employees across nearly 950 institutions surveyed in May, most were white and women, with about half in supervisory positions. In total, 57.2 percent of survey participants said they were likely to leave their job in the next 12 months. Almost 70 percent of potential job seekers said they wanted to find work at another institution. About half wanted to work with a nonprofit organization outside higher ed, and only 42 percent sought to remain at their current college.

Education, as a broad field, appeared in the middle of all fields in the Great Resignation. While education figures may not be far out of line with the rest of the workforce, higher education has historically enjoyed greater institutional loyalty than other fields. Over all, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in the fall of 2020 that the median tenure (the point at which half of all workers had more tenure and half had less tenure) of all U.S. workers was 4.1 years.

As someone who was employed for half a century on two campuses of universities within the state university system of Illinois, I was given pause to consider what may be gained by retaining employees in an institution. Admittedly, my half century at Illinois public universities may bias my view, but it also gives me some personal insight into the question.

First, here are some of the values I have seen that have been gained by turnover:

  • New employees bring new perspectives and new ideas to the workplace.
  • New employees may bring new enthusiasm to the jobs that need to be done.
  • New employees may come in at lower salaries, creating fiscal savings.
  • New employees may stimulate their workgroup to reorganize and rethink needs and outcomes.

Here, though, are some of the losses created by turnover:

  • Continuing employees command institutional history that can be beneficial in many ways.
  • Continuing employees can deepen and extend the pre-existing university culture.
  • Continuing employees maintain established connections and trusted relationships with stakeholders both within and outside the university.
  • Continuing employees can help units to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

We must recognize that career paths are not always on a single track. I began as an instructor in the College of Communications on the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois and rose through the faculty ranks on the Springfield campus to full professor and professor emeritus. However, along the way, I served in various director and executive director positions, acquired and led many grant initiatives, and eventually served as associate vice chancellor of online learning. So, while my status and spheres of responsibility changed, I was still at the table to share experience, insight and informed perspectives.

In the CUPA-HR study, more than 40 percent seeking to change positions said they did not want to stay at the same institution. Perhaps that is due to work climate, advancement/compensation opportunities in general and/or benefits. These are all factors that need to be addressed by better institutional and departmental leadership. The quality of leadership may overcome many of the deficits, injuries and misdirections that can befall a unit or university. Patrick Flesner writes in Inc.,

“Founders seem to believe the no. 1 reason for startup failure was running out of cash. In my experience as a growth capital investor, running out of cash is not a reason for failure, but a consequence of failure. It is the consequence of the founders’ failure to develop strong leadership skills, transition from founder to leader, and build a strong leadership team. If you want to lead your business from initial traction to sustainable high growth, you should start developing your leadership skills now.”

Gautam Tambay, CEO and co-founder of Springboard, a rapidly growing workforce-development company focused on digital economy skills, writes, “Today, nearly half of American workers have some form of an alternative credential. Among those who don’t, nearly half have considered earning one. So the question now becomes: How do employers take advantage of the growing alternative credentials movement?”

Increasingly, many universities are engaged in developing and offering alternative credentials aimed at those in the workforce seeking to enter a new field or move up the ladder into leadership positions. We, in higher ed, should be first in line to take advantage of these programs to upgrade knowledge, skills and abilities for our own employees. Perhaps with new credentials, our employees will be prepared to take on a new position at a higher salary with new challenges and team members. In short, we may be able to retain the institutional history, culture and connections of employees while at the same time giving them the changes they are seeking.

Who is cultivating internal development, certification and credentialing within your institution? Should this be part of your annual personnel evaluation process? Is someone regularly meeting each employee at every level to consider professional development to meet their professional goals?

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