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Colleges and universities across the country have found themselves in the unusual position of having to actually worry about attracting and retaining talent. Over the past couple of years, thought pieces and reports about higher education’s talent crisis have increased. Gone are the days of filling roles with friends, putting warm bodies in offices or the aimless practice of “post and pray.” Today’s job seeker is more savvy about investigating their potential employers, and they feel more empowered to pursue the employment experiences that deliver the value and values they are looking for. Colleges and universities should be strategic and thoughtful about the employee experience to best manage the smaller pool they face today.

Employer branding is neither a novel idea nor a nice-to-have. Like any other marketing and/or human resources function, it should be part of institutional strategy. The first thing that administrations should do is realize that their institutional brands are impacted by everything that shapes an employee’s experience or a potential employee’s perception of the faculty and staff experience. Candidates take note of how job descriptions are written, how institutions promote their open positions, how institutions contact them, the interview process and onboarding. Employees take note of engagement and even offboarding.

Yet here we are. The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources’ 2023 Higher Education Employee Retention Survey showed that, over all, approximately 33 percent of the respondents were either very likely or likely to seek out other employment opportunities in the next year. About 71 percent said that they were looking to move on to other colleges or universities, a 3 percent increase from the 2022 survey. Institutions should be concerned, however, that just over 61 percent said that they were looking to move away from higher ed to the private sector and just over 49 percent to an organization outside of higher ed. If the most valuable resource is the human resource, higher ed has a serious problem.

I’m far from surprised. In 2020, when I posted a job for an open position at the university where I was working, nearly 200 job seekers applied for that position. Only a year later, when I posted a job for a similar open position on my team, there were about 30 applicants. This time, it was harder to identify qualified candidates. Luckily, I was able to create and implement a search strategy and communicate an employer value proposition—a key part of employer branding—to successfully land my top candidate.

Many institutions collect data on the employee experience. That is a major step in creating a competitive employer brand. Ask faculty and staff if they understand and feel connected to their institution’s mission, vision, values and brand. Ask them if they feel as if the institution’s actions are consistent with those elements. Do the employees believe that they align with those institutional elements? Do they feel as if the campus where they work is the right place for them? Most importantly, do employees feel as if the institution values and invests in them? Institutions should also collect data on the applicant and candidate experience, especially from those who decline offers from the institution. And, yes, exit interviews should be part of the data collection, too.

Institutions should also use the data to adjust leadership and engagement practices, from the presidents to the directors. Nothing makes an engaged employee vote with their attitude and résumé like thoughtless leaders. It should come as no surprise that nearly 80 percent of the CUPA-HR respondents reported that they were seeking new opportunities because of pay. However, a large percentage of the respondents were also looking for opportunities to work remotely, flexible schedules, promotions or more responsibilities and new challenges. These are elements that can be addressed with quality leadership and engagement.

From there, the institution has the foundation to shape a distinct, competitive employer brand. Having an employer brand gives organizations a profile of the type of talent that they want, whether that means attracting and recruiting the right kind of talent or developing the current talent. As a bonus, there is more than enough research that shows retaining employees saves organizations money.

While I believe employer branding can make a difference, I am a realist. Employer branding isn’t a quick fix or smoke screen for poorly run organizations. Also, this isn’t about making every single member of the faculty and staff “happy.” A college campus is like a small city, with citizens of widely diverse attitudes and agendas. There are ways, however, to create experiences that provide value to faculty and staff so that they are some of the institution’s key brand ambassadors.

Employer branding can provide a solid foundation for institutions to build sustainable talent solutions. Administrations can build that foundation by fostering collaboration among key campus teams, namely human resources, institutional effectiveness and marketing and communications.

Like anything else, employer branding is an investment. By investing in employee satisfaction, institutions are investing in the satisfaction of their alumni, their supporters and, of course, their students.

Eddie Francis is the founder and principal of Greater New Orleans-based Edify Ventures, LLC. He hosts the podcast “I Wanna Work There!” which focuses on employer branding in higher education.