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Since the beginning of 2024, Inside Higher Ed has reported on literally dozens of positions being downsized around the United States. No type of institution is being spared. Among those affected are the University of New Hampshire, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Eastern Gateway Community College and Queens College.

These are the places that have publicly announced their plans. In the Philadelphia metropolitan area, several colleges and universities have engaged in silent downsizing, eliminating more than 10 percent of the faculty and staff without any public announcement. Therefore, the numbers of people displaced from higher education right now are considerably higher than even Inside Higher Ed’s reports indicate.

Sadly, we can only expect those numbers to grow. For example, Penn State University announced a $54-million deficit among its outlying campuses, some of which only have 400 or 600 students enrolled. Colleagues who work at the campuses have told me that they are not feeling secure right now.

If you are employed at a college or university that has recently downsized its faculty and staff, you may be tempted to ignore this article, thinking that you “survived.” But let’s consider the reality. Your administration eliminated 10 or more of its employees. All the work that those faculty and staff members did now devolves onto those of you remaining at the institution. Worse, you probably saw no concomitant increase in compensation. Your administration is expecting you to do more work for free and to act as if nothing happened, happily going about your day like you did before. But you need to ask yourself the following question: If your administration was dismissive or even silent about downsizing 10 percent or more of its workforce, what’s preventing them from downsizing you next month?

Indeed, if you are a faculty or staff member at virtually any position in higher education who has not been downsized yet, you owe it to yourself to future-proof your own career. As I wrote in a previous article, no one is coming to save you.

But you can save yourself. Here’s a three-step process you can begin following today to help you lend more security to your future employment.

Translate what you enjoy doing into the language of the broader workforce. I oversaw multimillion-dollar projects in my career, but because I was not certified in project management through Six Sigma or Agile, my options outside of higher ed were limited. I am therefore using my weekends to pursue such certification. That certification will enable me to showcase my expertise in a way that is recognized across industries while I am learning the principles that underlie the practical skills I already possess.

Similarly, a staff member in admissions or enrollment management might choose to pursue certification in data analytics. This type of certification would enable them to perform their current roles better, position them for future advancement and ensure their employability outside of higher education should the need arise. The key is to pursue certifications that showcase skills highly desired by employers in your geographical area.

If pursuing certification is not financially possible for you right now, you should spend time gaining experience adapting your current skills into new contexts. Faculty and staff members who have experience developing online courses could begin pivoting into corporate training, adapting instructional and pedagogical techniques to adult learners in a variety of business settings. Similarly, an English faculty member or member of the university relations staff could leverage their storytelling skills into content marketing. Right now, the demand is high for people who can craft compelling narratives that engage online audiences.

Don’t know where to begin seeking such opportunities? Consider volunteering to serve on a committee in a different part of your institution than where you currently work. One of the most valuable experiences of my career came from my service on a committee to oversee a construction project on the campus, installing an elevator in our main classroom building to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. I learned about the role physical plant plays on campus, project management and safety processes on a construction site, the need for an institution to have good relationships with the local township, and the importance of keeping current on changes in Federal and State laws.

Also, consider nonprofits and service clubs in your community when looking for opportunities. Many service clubs took substantial hits in membership during the pandemic. Your desire to get involved is likely to be greeted with open arms.

Stay ahead of trends in your field if you want to future-proof your career. In addition to being a dean, I was also a Quality Matters Coordinator at my previous institution. Before the pandemic, getting people to see the value of becoming certified in online education was its own challenge. Even though the workshops were free, only about 25 percent of the faculty completed one. But during the summer of 2020, I couldn’t offer enough workshops to accommodate demand. Similarly, you need to take a significantly more proactive approach these days. In that way, when—not if—the landscape in your field evolves, you’re not just prepared, you’ll be one of the people leading the charge.

For example, faculty members in math generally fall into two camps: the “pure” mathematicians and the “applied” ones. The applied ones increasingly are learning coding in languages like R or Python. Learning to code enhances their skills in solving complex problems while simultaneously opening doors to collaborations with data scientists, engineers and biologists. Wonderful research is emerging from such collaborations. And, just as practically, these collaborations also allow faculty members in math to pivot into different career paths in case their program gets downsized.

A healthy goal would be to set aside time every week to keep abreast of industry trends. That might involve participating in online workshops or webinars, as well as reading articles in industry news outlets and professional journals. It could also involve meeting faculty or staff members from other areas of the campus to learn from them directly. Working to continually evolve in your field ensures that your knowledge and skills remain at the cutting edge, making you far more adaptable and influential.

Build a network of substance. Many people in higher ed do not network. Most walk around the institution, gossiping with a handful of people every week. Others go to meetings and conferences on a periodic basis and use the time as an opportunity to catch up with people they haven’t seen in a while. But socializing is not networking.

Neither is having a circle of acquaintances, as I learned the hard way. Prior to the pandemic, I knew every dean and vice president of academic affairs or provost in the Philadelphia metropolitan area on a first-name basis. When I was downsized, I reached out to more than 80 people, including presidents, provosts and deans in my LinkedIn “network.” Only five offered tangible support, a 6.25 percent return on that investment. The experience was sobering.

By contrast, I joined a group of about 30 entrepreneurs in August 2023. Almost every one of them taught me something valuable about growing and expanding a business. They gave freely of their knowledge and were just as eager to learn from me when I had an insight to share. So, drawing from my experience, I also recommend the following.

Cultivate connections everywhere. In his book Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty, Harvey Mackay warns readers not to assume that just because someone has a title, they have power. Often the people who wield real power are staff members. Mackay tells the story of Craig Fuller, a junior staffer in the Reagan White House. A group of network executives had been invited to a meeting with the President. Fuller was sitting in the anteroom to keep people engaged while they waited. To a person, the executives ignored him, annoying someone who had the ear of the President of the United States. Let no one be a stranger to you. Set a goal to add two or three new connections to your network every week.

Engage regularly and authentically. A one-off interaction to wish someone happy birthday on LinkedIn will not build a network. You need to engage people in a continuing way. I post an article on my LinkedIn page every Tuesday morning, offering advice on ways that colleges and universities can enhance enrollment, retention and market relevance authentically. But I didn’t start there. I started by joining groups on LinkedIn related to my field and commenting thoughtfully on posts I found insightful. Set a goal to post two thoughtful comments per week on content posted by connections you have made and/or share articles you have read that you think your connections would find helpful based on their concerns.

Offer value first. When I was in Rotary International, I met people who had traveled all over the world, administering the polio vaccine to the population. One Rotarian told me about a time when his group had arrived at an armed checkpoint. The driver was not able to persuade the guards to let the group’s vehicle pass. The Rotarian exited the vehicle to see if he could assist in any way. When the guards saw the Rotary symbol on his jacket, they let the vehicle pass, saying, “It’s OK. They are people of the wheel.” Just like the Rotarians, do something for people who can never repay you. Set a goal to share your expertise, mentor someone or offer value to someone in your network every week, expecting nothing in return.

The turbulence that characterizes higher education today shows no sign of abating soon. It is a scary time for many people. More than a few of my friends in higher ed have shared with me how precarious they feel their situations are and how difficult it is to plan ahead in their personal lives as a result.

But following the three-step process I outlined here can help restore some sense of stability and a greater sense of control to your life. By translating your passions into marketable skills across industries, staying proactively ahead of trends in your field and building a network of substance, you can create a foundation that positions you for future success inside and outside of academia. That’s the greatest security anyone can have in our current moment in higher education.

I wish you the very best.

Alfred G. Mueller II is Assistant Dean of the William T. Daly School of General Studies and Graduate Education at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey.

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