Addressing the Great Resignation in turbulent times


Higher ed employees list priorities for creating an attractive workplace


Higher education institutions have always faced challenges in attracting and retaining the best talent. While the struggles are not new, the external shocks of the past few years – the pandemic-fueled economic slowdown followed by the Great Resignation, continuing supply chain disruptions and a possible recession paired with the worst inflationary period in a generation – have exacerbated these conditions and put these challenges into the spotlight.

Creating attractive workplace environments, supporting positive work-life balance, and maintaining valued benefits, while continuing to burnish higher education’s reputation for job security were goals that were in view well before 2020. The recent disruptions created by the economic downturn and the need for remote learning only escalated these priorities for higher education institutions.

As the Great Resignation continues, institutions are now experiencing unprecedented turnover rates that could either provide a bonanza of new talent quickly – or cause the loss of enough faculty and staff to devastate departments and programs that are instrumental to an institution’s reputation and educational pedagogies.

Grant Thornton recently surveyed employees of higher education institutions about their perception of their jobs, focusing on what attracts and retains staff and faculty, their thoughts about hybrid work, what they find valuable about their benefits and compensation packages, and what creates stress in the workplace. The survey gathered responses from 559 staff and faculty who work full-time and receive benefits as part of their total rewards package. The survey is similar to a larger State of Work in America survey taken by more than 5,200 workers from a cross-section of industries.

When comparing the two surveys, some important findings include:

  • Benefits packages are no longer seen as “unique and different” when compared to those of for-profit companies that are recruiting employees with similar skills.
  • A perception that leaders of higher education institutions are not reflecting the institution’s values and mission as strongly as they have in the past.
  • Higher education employees rate today’s political and social environments at their institution as much more stressful than the average employee across all industries.
  • More than half of higher education employees desire expanded opportunities for hybrid work – preferring to go into the office fewer than four days within a two-week period.





Higher education benefits may be slipping



Gary Setterberg, a managing director in the Human Capital Services Group at Grant Thornton, said the changing expectations of younger employees are pressuring institutions to re-evaluate what they perceive as valuable about working in higher education.

“The value proposition for higher education employment has long been that benefits and job security will be an attractive counter to higher compensation opportunities in the private sector,” Setterberg said. “But university employers are now discovering that today’s Millennial and Generation Z candidates come to their institution expecting the institution will offer significant workplace flexibility, will offer an even more favorable work-life balance, and will also offer strong benefits as well as ‘industry-competitive’ salaries in line with other sectors.”

Our survey findings revealed that 64% of higher education employees are satisfied with their benefits, which is around the same ratio as employees measured across all industries. However, the traditional assumption that a college or university’s benefits package compensates for lower salaries is no longer true.

With starting salaries, retention bonuses and enriched benefits escalating rapidly during the current “war for talent”, higher education job applicants are now expecting parity with the private sector. In addition, only 39% of higher education employees feel their benefits and rewards are “unique and different” – significantly below the 51% of employees measured across all industries.

With respect to salaries, a lower percentage of higher education employees – 37% – say their pay allows them to live the lifestyle they choose, compared to 46% for State of Work respondents overall. Taken together, these results strongly suggest that total compensation packages for higher education might not be the incentive they once were.

Most institutions believe that raising salaries is neither easily done nor very effective in the long term to address their staffing needs. Setterberg says all but the most well-endowed universities and colleges are under enormous pressure to keep tuition, fees and other costs competitive. That creates a downward pressure on employee benefits — more money for staff and faculty simply may not be in the budget and tenable for most institutions.




Signs of a disconnected leadership



The attitude of higher education employees regarding their institution’s values lagged compared to employees overall. Taken together, the answers revealed the possibility of a disconnect between the stated cultural priorities of an institution and how employees, and leadership, act upon that mission.

Only 41% of higher education staff agreed or strongly agreed that institutional leadership espouse the institution’s values. Among all employees across all industries, 56% agreed that their company’s leaders reflected their company’s values. Another disconnect appeared to be with the faculty and staff’s perception of their school’s support for their jobs. Only 41% of higher education staff and faculty feel their voice is heard at work, compared to 52% of the State of Work respondents.

Higher education employees were also 11 percentage points lower when asked whether their institution inspires them to perform at their best. And, only 34% of those employees agreed or strongly agreed that their institution understands their needs as an employee, which is 20 percentage points lower than our State of Work respondents.




Recognizing stress factors


When asked what factors in their lives cause the most stress, higher education employees were closely aligned with those of other State of Work respondents. Both said personal debt, and then medical issues were the top two life stressors, and accordingly, like private businesses, higher education institutions would do well to recognize and address these stressors among their employees. Similar to employees overall, higher education employees also ranked two key issues – the ability to retire and mental health – among their top five stressors, although mental health ranked fifth for higher education employees, as opposed to third for all employees.

The outlier stressor for higher education respondents was “political and social environment,” which was the third highest stressor for higher education employees, but sixth among employees overall. In a more positive comparison, 28% of employees overall said their manager was the most stressful part of their workday, but only 14% of higher education employees felt this way.




Strategy recommendations


As the Great Resignation continues, institutions should be innovative in how they message and promote the employee experience and in what they do to attract and retain key talent.

What does the workplace of the future look like? How can institutions continue to support work-life balance and offer unique and differentiated total rewards? Based on the survey results, the following are a few strategies for higher education institutions to consider:

  • “Next generation” employee value proposition: It is time to respond to new hire expectations more creatively and aggressively. Whether addressing additional financial concerns of new hires burdened by significant student loans, or work flexibility demands, or simply a desire for more personalized benefits, a differentiated value proposition can clearly distinguish your institution from other employers and bolster retention efforts. Understanding what is causing your staff and faculty stress and then addressing these pain points through a tailored benefit program can provide a competitive advantage.
  • Refreshed listening strategy: Survey responses clearly indicate that current faculty and staff do not believe they are being heard. Whether by way of traditional special interest groups, pulse surveys, periodic focus groups, a renewed commitment and effort to truly hear your colleagues and understand their needs can refresh your colleagues’ belief that your institution is truly committed to and working on creating a better and more engaged experience for staff and faculty. Leveraging analytics to truly understand staff and faculty opinions – and using that information to make data-driven decisions – will provide institutions with what they need to attract and retain key talent.
  • Innovative “boomerang” strategy: Survey data regarding those who have recently left their former employer – boomerangs – suggest there may be some dissatisfaction with new employers. With a reported 40% of survey respondents indicating they would consider returning to their former institution, an attempt to maintain good alumni relationships with former staff could result in stronger and quicker return of desired employees.


Dennis J. Morrone

Dennis Morrone is the National Managing Partner of Grant Thornton's Not-for-Profit & Higher Education Practices.

Iselin, New Jersey

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