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When we talk about higher education, we mostly focus on what colleges and universities produce. Outputs include graduates and knowledge, credentials and research.

Our chief concerns related to higher education tend to be factors related to those outputs. We worry about rising tuition costs and low completion rates. Student debt and adequate preparation for a changing job market are of perennial concern. When we boast about what universities accomplish, we highlight the opportunities we create for individuals. Research-intensive universities will also amplify the impact of applied and basic research as engines of innovation, economic growth and improved societal well-being and health.

Another way to understand higher education is to look at colleges and universities as places of work. There are about 3.5 million people employed at postsecondary institutions. Of that total, about 1.5 million are faculty and two million are staff. Of those professors, 850,000 are full-time faculty. Among staff, the largest categories by employment numbers are office and administrative support (~370,000), student and campus services (~220,000), management (~270,000), and librarians and instructional support staff (~215,000).

Higher education is a people-intensive business. Sixty percent of all university budgets go into paying the salaries and benefits for the people who teach, do research, support students and professors, and make their institutions run.

Throughout the economy, other people-intensive industries are dealing with a shortage of workers. Hospitals can’t find nurses, half of schools report teacher shortages and retail stores and restaurants operate without enough cashiers and servers. In some industries, such as trucking (short 160,000 drivers by 2030), labor shortages will dramatically grow as boomers retire over the next few years.

Where does higher education stand in this broader story of labor shortages?

In some respects, colleges and universities are much better off than other employers regarding workers. People want to work in higher education. Our is a mission-driven field. While not known for their high pay, university jobs have at least been considered more stable than similar roles in the for-profit sector. There is a surplus of workers for some positions in academia, such as humanities instruction, due to the oversupply of Ph.D.s and declining enrollments in specific majors.

The contingent faculty labor market and the mission-driven nature of the academic work may be masking broader challenges in higher education staffing. Talk to anyone who works at a college or university and they will say that their department is understaffed.

The big secret of academic work is that academics, at all levels and positions, work all the time. Much of the night and weekend work is driven by the competitiveness of the field and the love of the work. But much of the reason people in higher education work so many hours is that they do more than one job. The work of higher education jobs does not stop when a colleague retires or leaves for another institution or industry.

Primarily due to the financial precariousness of most institutions of higher education, driven by adverse demographic trends and reduced public funding, colleges and universities are reluctant to hire full-time workers. With or without faculty and staff, the work of the university still needs to get done. So everyone is stretched.

The invisible understaffing epidemic of higher education is mainly confined to professional roles. More visible is the understaffing epidemic of front-line university workers. Filling jobs for the people who feed our students and clean the classrooms has been incredibly difficult. Colleges and universities suffer the same shortage of qualified applicants and high turnover rates for service roles as every other industry.

Higher education staffing shortages will most likely become more acute in the years ahead. Future academic understaffing will primarily be a function of the rapidly aging postsecondary workforce. Three in 10 people who work in higher education are 55 and over.

Over the next decade, vast numbers of college and university employees will be walking out the door. They will leave with years of accrued knowledge and know-how locked in their brains. As colleges are reluctant to hire, too little is being done to train the next generation of higher education workers.

Academic leaders must, of course, pay close attention to what colleges and universities produce. Teaching and research must be at the forefront of institutional strategies. In addition to advancing learning and supporting knowledge creation, presidents, provosts and deans should reflect on their universities as places of work.

We can’t leave thinking about tomorrow’s higher education workforce to the Human Resources department. Figuring out how to attract and retain the best faculty and staff should be among the top priorities of every higher education leader.

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