Colleges Cope With IT Staff Flight in Wake of Pandemic

With information technology skills in high demand across industries, many colleges are finding they can’t hold on to talent.

February 2, 2022
 
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Colleges are having a difficult time retaining IT staff.

Michael Boehm blames COVID for the IT staff attrition he has experienced as chief information officer at Virginia’s Averett University.

He has lost four staffers on his 10-person team in recent months, two of whom did not want to comply with the campus’s COVID vaccine mandate. Boehm believes heavy workloads during the pandemic and the fact that many higher-paying corporate information technology jobs now offer the flexibility of working from home—which was once exclusively a perk of working in academia—have contributed to the cascade of staff departures. People with technical skills are generally in high demand, Boehm said, making it possible for IT workers to cherry-pick jobs based on flexibility and pay.

“Working in higher ed has never been the shortest path to riches,” Boehm said. “In the past, maybe the fact was that you couldn’t pay as much as the private sector, [but] you could compete more with the fact that you offered flexibility … Now you don’t have that edge.”

Mark McCormack is senior director of analytics and research for Educause, the nonprofit association that seeks to advance higher education with information technology. He said Educause has been tracking higher ed IT staff burnout for some time, and he believes much of the staff attrition—for which he does not yet have firm statistics—is due to the unique pressures IT staff faced when transitioning campuses from in-person classes to fully remote during the pandemic.

“Over the last two years, those staff and those leaders at the institution have taken on a much more visible and strategically and operationally important role,” McCormack said. He added that this new status “led to increased stress and burnout among the staff and leadership because we were still in that reactive space … That’s not a sustainable work environment.”

McCormack said Educause surveyed IT staff at higher education institutions in 2019 to determine how many institutions were undergoing a digital transformation. At the time, only 13 percent said they were, and it felt to McCormack like “this emerging thing that’s further off on the horizon.”

Last fall, McCormack surveyed higher ed IT staff again and found 44 percent reported they were engaged in digital transformation, with another 27 percent actively developing their digital transformation strategies.

McCormack said preliminary results from Educause’s most recent Core Data Service survey, in which institutions are asked about their IT staffing and spending, show more institutions are recognizing they need to invest more money in hiring additional staff to relieve their exhausted IT workers. In 2020, McCormack said, only 18 percent of institutions said they were planning to increase central IT staffing, a statistic that McCormack called emblematic of the “doing more with less issue.”

Educause conducted the same survey again last fall, and 41 percent of institutions said they were planning to increase central IT staffing. McCormack said the more recent numbers are preliminary, but they give him “hope that help is on the way for some of our stressed and burned-out staff.”

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Charlie Moran, senior partner and CEO of Moran Technology Consulting, an IT consulting firm that specializes in helping higher ed institutions, said that during COVID, many schools saw IT staff slowly disappear.

Many institutions “have struggled to replace them with their current limited budgets and other employers paying much higher wages,” Moran said. “It’s a mess for some schools … We have seen small schools lose several staff over the last two years.”

McCormack said Educause polling shows IT staff are seeking more workplace flexibility, so many institutions will need to offer hybrid or fully remote work environments to compete with the corporate sector.

“That is going to contribute to this issue of the great resignation on our staff turnover and institutions’ ability to retain talent,” McCormack said.

McCormack said Educause completed a survey in September that found that staff working at institutions without remote work opportunities were much more likely to be job hunting.

“The culture has shifted, and I think staff expectations and needs have shifted, and institutions are going to be faced with the choice of whether or not they reflect that in their workplace policies and the flexibility they can offer their talent,” McCormack said.

Mark Staples, chief information officer at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, said his institution has long offered IT staff remote work opportunities as a way to compete with the corporate sector and to address the mismatch between relatively low salaries in higher ed and the expensive housing market in Charleston. But he said several aggressive steps he has taken to keep staff from leaving have not been entirely successful, due to what he calls “COVID-induced unprecedented tech hiring across all industries that can pay much more.”

“The salary differentials have been significant and made it impossible to compete with or counter the offers,” Staples said via text message. “Low salary has made it very difficult to hire new talent—especially for those roles that cannot work remotely. Because most tech roles can work in any industry, I expect to see more of my staff leave to earn more money.”

McCormack said the most recent Core Data Service survey, from last fall, showed that over the course of the prior fiscal year, there was a median of four staff departures from higher ed IT departments.

Tracy Schroeder, chief information officer at Boston University, said after facing challenges retaining staff in 2016 due to poor team dynamics, she improved communication and resource management, leading to better retention results. She said staff attrition has gone up in the past year, however, and she’s lost talent again.

Retaining entry-level staff and senior staff with sophisticated skill sets has been most challenging. Schroeder said extreme pay differentials have prompted people “sometimes exiting for 50 percent to 150 percent raises.”

She believes it has been harder to compete with the corporate sector because many of the IT jobs at the university require employees to be on campus since students are on campus. It has also become clear to her that staff working remotely part-time may feel less loyalty to the institution as a result of their work situation.

Schroeder is most focused on raising salaries. She believes people want to work for a world-class research university, but they aren’t willing to lose thousands of dollars in annual income to do so.

“We are actively doing equity and market adjustments—I’ve done one round already aimed at retention,” Schroeder said. “And we are looking at doing more this spring to try to keep our high performers, especially, and our early-career talent. But we’re also just trying to really double down on being a good place to work and focusing on the mission, because to a large extent, people come to work in higher ed because they care about what we do.”

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