The Higher Education Brain Drain: Why Your Institution Is Struggling with Workforce Retention

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Staff turnover and retention have been a top priority for many higher education institutions. Like other sectors, colleges are experiencing the Great Resignation, a post-pandemic economic trend where dissatisfied employees are quitting their jobs in droves.

According to a 2022 CUPA-HR survey, more than half of higher education workers hinted at resigning in 2023. A more recent study by the association notes that 71% of admission coordinators and counselors have held their positions for a maximum of three years. This report reveals that just 53% of professionals across the sector have served for the same duration.

So why are higher learning institutions facing challenges in retaining staff? And does the industry face the same hurdles as other sectors?

Why Are Institutions Struggling with Workforce Retention?

Here are the most likely reasons why your institution experiences workforce retention challenges:

Limited Career Advancement Opportunities

The main contributor to high staff turnover in higher learning is the search for professional growth. Institutions that lack clear paths for advancement leave individuals stagnant in their roles. So if you’re struggling to retain your workforce, chances are your school lacks well-defined:

  • Promotion structures
  • Mentorship programs
  • Mechanisms for recognizing and rewarding outstanding contributions

Inadequate Compensation and Benefits

Staff members may explore opportunities at other institutions if yours doesn’t offer competitive salaries. Academic roles are quite demanding, emphasizing the need for fair and competitive compensation. Even if you cannot afford pay raises, employees will appreciate:

  • One-time bonuses
  • Shopping vouchers
  • Transport cards
  • Gym memberships
  • Performance-based incentives

Work-Life Balance Challenges

Higher ed employees deal with long hours, extensive research expectations, and demanding teaching loads, making it difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance. In the long run, your staff members will look for employers with:

  • Flexible work arrangements
  • Reasonable workload expectations
  • Clear boundaries between the professional and personal

Inadequate Research and Scholarship Support

Faculty members consider research and scholarship integral components of their roles. They get to expand their knowledge, make discoveries in their respective fields, and solve problems with their innovative ideas. Moreover, research support provides networking opportunities and personal fulfillment, boosting employee morale.

Your institution can offer grant opportunities, research facilities, and recognition for scholarly achievements. 

Bureaucracy and Red Tape

Cumbersome administrative procedures, slow decision-making, and complex approval processes can hinder academic initiatives. If your institution hasn’t streamlined its administrative processes, you may struggle with staff morale and productivity. Ultimately, the situation might prompt employees to seek positions in more agile and responsive academic environments.

Lack of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

Institutions that don’t promote inclusivity may struggle with workforce retention. Per a 2020 Glassdoor report, 76% of employees and job applicants value a diverse workplace. Lack of inclusion affects your retention rates in different ways. For starters, underrepresented employees may feel isolated, affecting their productivity and job satisfaction.

Your institutional reputation is also compromised, deterring candidates who value inclusive environments. That’s not to mention the impact on innovation—a homogeneous workforce is more likely to suffer from limiting perspectives, affecting the institution’s ability to adapt and stay competitive. Another risk is unconscious bias. Leaders may unknowingly favor particular employees, resulting in unfair promotions, hiring decisions, and work allocation. 

The Far-Reaching Impacts of High Staff Turnover

Losing staff members for whatever reason can hinder your processes and make it difficult to fulfill your mission. Here’s how the higher education brain drain could affect your facility:

Higher Visible and Invisible Costs

While there’s limited research on the cost of higher education staff turnover, the situation inevitably leads to unanticipated institutional costs. These expenses are mostly associated with searching and selecting staff and onboarding procedures.

The opportunity costs are even more detrimental since you’ll spend more time recruiting than handling your regular activities. Moreover, word of constant staff exit negatively affects your reputation, discouraging potential employees from joining the institution.

A Negative Student Experience

Student-faculty ratios often indicate an institution’s quality of education. In most cases, students prefer small classes with focused attention from professors. As such, staff shortages can reduce course offerings, limit support services, and force scholars to take longer to complete their courses.

A past study of New York State’s public institutions notes that student-teacher ratios don’t favor underrepresented minorities, worsening the existing inequalities. And because institutions rely on tuition fees to stay afloat, enrollment declines cause budgetary constraints, slashing employee salaries.

Solutions to the Higher Education Brain Drain

Here’s how to overcome higher ed staffing challenges and promote workforce retention:

  • Prioritize competitive compensation: Regularly review salary structures and align them with industry standards. In addition, work towards providing attractive benefits, including healthcare, retirement plans, and professional development opportunities. This demonstrates an appreciation of employee contributions, enhancing their satisfaction and loyalty.
  • Provide growth opportunities: Facilitate training, collaborations, mentorship programs, job rotations, and scholarship support to upgrade employee skill sets. By doing so, you increase job satisfaction and create opportunities for higher roles and better pay grades.
  • Establish work-life balance initiatives: Acknowledging your employees’ personal lives and well-being creates a positive and supportive work environment, fostering loyalty and reducing burnout. Consider generous paid time off policies, compressed workweeks, childcare assistance, and wellness programs to show staff you care about their mental and physical well-being.
  • Invest in staff engagement: Engage your faculty and staff in decision-making, seek their input, and value their opinions. In addition, leverage regular communication channels to enhance transparency and make employees feel more connected to the institution’s goals. A positive and inclusive workplace culture creates a sense of belonging and engagement.
  • Prioritize leadership and management training: This training equips leaders in your institution with the skills to communicate effectively and provide constructive feedback. They’ll also learn to foster a positive work environment. In the long run, you’ll enhance your management teams’ overall effectiveness and create an atmosphere of trust and support.

It’s Time to Protect Your Institution from the Higher Education Brain Drain

If your institution experiences high staff turnover, you are not alone. The higher education brain drain has been going on for decades, and the issue is getting worse by the day. 

Fortunately, nextSource is tried and tested when it comes to workforce retention and attraction, providing tailor-made solutions for your staffing needs. Let’s connect to discuss your higher education recruitment challenges.

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