18 minute read 06 April 2023

How universities can tackle the current talent shortage

Deloitte’s Cole Clark, Storbeck Search’s Shelly Weiss Storbeck, and Carnegie Mellon’s Michelle Piekutowski discuss the challenges facing hiring and retention in higher education

Cole Clark

Cole Clark

United States

2021 saw an unprecedented number of individuals leave their jobs, the highest in US history. Colleges and universities in the United States certainly were not immune to this macro workforce challenge. We’re going to delve deeper into how the Great Resignation [and] issues like return to campus and remote work opportunities are impacting human resources in the higher education sector across the academic enterprise.

I’m joined today by two very distinguished guests and friends of mine—Shelly Weiss Storbeck and Michelle Piekutowski.

Shelly serves as the global education practice lead and managing director for Storbeck Search, a division of the Diversified Search Group, and is one of the most widely recognized names in the education sector, having recruited senior leaders for many of America’s most well-known and prestigious colleges and universities. Michelle is associate vice president and chief human resources officer at Carnegie Mellon University, where she provides direction and strategy on recruitment and retention, onboarding and professional development, employee and labor relations, benefits, and compensation and performance standards and assessments. She’s a seasoned HR executive with well over 15 years of leadership experience in higher ed.

Shelly, could [you] give us a general perspective on the current state of the workforce or human resources in higher education?

Storbeck: What we’re all finding is that we’re in pretty much unprecedented times. Lots of college and university presidents [are] deciding that it’s time to think about a career change. Part of it is certainly COVID-19, and what [institutions have] been dealing with in terms of loss of revenue, students on campus, [and also] some of the challenges [are] in the area of social justice, DEI, [and] student activism. Obviously, when you take a job like this, you don’t expect your office to be occupied on a regular basis, but that’s certainly part of what presidents are experiencing.

The other [issue] I would say is shared governance. What is the appropriate role of boards, what is the appropriate role of management and institutions? Pick up The Chronicle [of Higher Education] every morning, and you read about yet another collision of individuals who essentially believe that they are running the institution.

Q: Michelle, the pandemic prompted a lot of reflection about what’s important in work, and not just in higher ed, but across all industries and sectors. Many employees view work as not as important as we once thought, or we have fewer individuals who see the attractiveness of working in a campus setting. Some have left the workforce all together, and a number have gotten very attracted to or connected to remote work. I’m curious to hear what you’re hearing from the line-level staff and administrative employees, both at Carnegie Mellon and across the higher ed spectrum in terms of what are they looking for from higher ed institutions as employers? How do you see that changing? And if I could throw one more thing in there, was the pandemic really the catalyst for this? Or did it just act as an accelerant to forces and shifts that were already in motion?

Piekutowski: Remote work is a challenge, specifically the importance of [being] a residential community to our students.

More than 30% of the staff at my university have been hired since the beginning of the pandemic. Many of those staff members have never worked on a university campus, and they don’t fully understand [or] have the appreciation of what it’s like to work on a residential campus. Being fully removed doesn’t always allow opportunities for the staff to have direct contact with students or with administrators and other leaders and other staff around the university. What we’re hearing from our staff is, we miss this opportunity to grow and to be with others.

Our students also feel this. They expressed to us the need to be face to face with their adviser. They want to have that in-person connection with advisors and professors, but they also understand from watching their own parents, [and] from watching others, the importance and the need for flexibility for our faculty and staff.

They also, very interestingly, have recognized the benefits of flexibility with educational requirements. For example, student athletes who need to travel to games, or other students who need to travel and be away from the class, with Zoom they can join into a lecture and not feel like they’re getting behind.

I do believe the work is still very important to staff. They treasure working in higher ed. They take pride in their role. However, to your point, the flexibility that was afforded, and in many cases discovered during the pandemic, brought to light more than ever the importance of balancing what we do between our work and our home responsibilities. Many universities already had flexible work arrangements on their campuses. It just wasn’t discovered and utilized as much.

Q: Let’s turn now to some of the recruiting challenges that institutions are facing. Shelly, the role of the president, the provost, various vice president positions, [and] deans [are] certainly among the most highly sought after and prestigious roles in higher education. But the candidate pool for these positions has been steadily shrinking over time, and that’s gotten significantly worse over the last couple of years. What do you think is contributing to that shift in the candidate pool that we’re seeing for these very highly coveted positions?

Storbeck: I’m sure all of you follow the research that the American Council on Education (ACE) does about the pathway to the presidency. The last installment of that research [in 2017] suggested that 40% of the presidential roles are filled by provost[s]. Today, what we’re finding is that provost[s] watch [what] their presidents go through [with] issues with board governance, issues with faculty governance, issues with students in terms of their level of engagement in the institution, [and then] are deciding that what they’re witnessing is not necessarily the life that they want.

The challenges in recruiting people to these senior positions have to do with a myriad of things. One is, you need a healthy culture to attract candidates. I think another piece that we’re seeing is that committees—rightly so—are interested in highly diverse pools of candidates. You’re looking at candidates that are coming from different backgrounds, different demographics than perhaps [we’ve] seen before. That is for the good, we believe, in terms of the leadership profile. But if 14 AAU [Association of American universities] institutions are looking for presidents, I can pretty much guarantee you there’s going to be a lot of competition for those particular candidates.

Most search committees are a little bit of a Noah's ark: A couple of students, a couple of faculty, a couple staff and board members. These parts of the institution are not used to working closely together, and they have not been together during COVID-19, so it’s even harder now to build consensus in terms of what that search committee is ultimately looking for.

The last thing I’ll say is [about] transparency in the search process. Lots of candidates are deeply concerned about their candidacy being memorialized on the internet: They’re painted as the unsuccessful candidate in Search X. We have candidates ask us one question when we talk with them about the institution: Tell me a little bit about what the final phase is going to look like. How much exposure am I going to get? And when is that exposure going to take place?

Q: There was a survey in The Chronicle of Higher Education recently that tended to indicate that hiring for administrative and staff jobs had become significantly more difficult in the last year. I’m curious if you’ve got some thoughts on strategies that you and your peers in HR leadership roles are using to fill these vacancies.

Piekutowski: [For] many of us in higher ed, our HR teams [are] where we experience the most turnover. My entire recruitment team turned over during the pandemic. This turnover has caused existing employees to take on additional responsibilities, and that impacts morale. It can mean heavier workloads [and] more hours, but it can also mean opportunity for growth and development of skills. We’ve been able to see that at our university. It’s empowered recruiters to find solutions instead of just talking about the challenges, for example, referral programs, where staff can receive a monetary amount for referring successful hires [or] recruiters receiving certifications and training to reach out to passive applicants. There are ways that we can utilize our technology and artificial intelligence tools to do it differently. So, while it’s been challenging, it has kind of pushed us to the next level.

Q: Have you noticed any trade-offs between the urgency to hire and fill the large number of vacancies and the quality of the candidates that you’re bringing in?

Piekutowski: Absolutely. Time to hire during the pandemic increased about 15% to 20%, and due to the smaller number of applicants applying, and even smaller numbers being qualified for the position, it’s created some challenges for us.

We’re seeing that a larger number of new hires are going through the employee relations process, meaning supervisors are having problems and concerns with the performance. We didn’t have this so much in the past, so we’re questioning supervisors: Talk to us about how you decided on candidates. We want to make sure that they aren’t skipping steps, and that they aren’t settling, because that then adds more morale problems to the existing staff, who are excited that a new hire is coming in, just to find that the person really isn’t fully qualified. The existing staff is having to continue to train those individuals to get them fully qualified for the job.

We are finding that managers are reluctant, as they have been in the past, to stop and think about the position and the gaps that they have within their organization. Are there other solutions other than just refilling this? Are there opportunities to promote individuals within your current workforce, or ways to redistribute the work? We are starting to see managers really thinking [about] that and taking some HR guidance and advice.

Q: Shelly, earlier you had talked about diversity, equity, inclusion being an increasingly important element in the search process. I’m curious to get your perspective on whether you think that political and polarization considerations are beginning to cloud searches or creep into the search process.

Storbeck: I absolutely do think that there’s a politicization of these processes [on] campuses. Here’s a great example: We were interviewing candidates during COVID-19. There were members of search committees who refused to be vaccinated, and yet still wanted to do face-to-face interviews with candidate[s]. There was an enormous amount of discussion about whether or a committee could function with some people being vaccinated and some not being vaccinated.

All of the political issues that are playing out in our country are [playing out] into our search committees, and that’s very unfortunate. I do find that search committees typically want to see evidence of where people stand on pretty controversial issues like abortion, mental health, and a variety of other issues. You worry a little bit about how is that information weighing into the decision process?

We do very robust anti-bias training at the front end of every search process, so that every committee member is held to a singular standard of making sure that the criteria is the primary means by which you judge candidates—whether or not somebody is registered as a Republican, a Democrat, or as independent doesn’t enter into the decision-making [process]. That doesn’t mean that people don’t hold private opinions about candidates [or] don’t express them. But I’m very hopeful that with that level of discipline and rigor exercised at the beginning of the search, those biases will be pushed to the side, or at least recognized by the people who hold them; and that, secondly, our pools ultimately will be more inclusive, and ultimately our cultures, then, will be more inclusive as well.

Q: I’d like to stay with you for a minute, Shelly, and talk a bit about the average tenure of college presidents. We did a study in 2017 around the pathways to the presidency in higher education, and at that time, the average tenure was around six years. I would speculate that the tenure has declined over the intervening five or six years. You’ve done more than 500 leadership searches in your tenure. What do you think is contributing to this pattern of shortening tenure of presidents and other senior executives?

Storbeck: I think the ACE study will show some reduction in persistence, and that’s how success in a presidency has been measured. What’s producing this? [The] demographic cliff, so you have fewer students. The remote versus face-to-face [issue], what’s the balance of what that should look like? The issues of governance. I do think that there are fewer people that are ultimately interested in some of these administrative roles, [and] I think all of that is contributing [to shorter tenures].

The persistence rate is likely to go down, and I worry about that because you think about the lifespan of a president, and what a president will be doing: You need a [year or two] to do your listening sessions. You need a year or so to get your strategic plan under way, [and] usually it’s a four- or five-year strategic plan. Then you do a capital campaign following that. That doesn’t add up to five years. That’s more like 10. And so, if you’re not serving in the role for at least a decade, you’re never going to get through the cycle of seeing the results of the planning work and the listening work that you’ve done as a president.

Q: Looking forward to our next generation of leaders, what are the skill sets, the competencies, and [the] capabilities that this new set of leaders are going to need?

Piekutowski: I really believe that [for] leaders, managers, supervisors, anyone who is responsible for managing others, it is critical that they know their staff, they know their teams, and they develop and grow those individuals and help them to get promoted within the organization, help them to be the next generation of leaders.

Q: Shelly.

Storbeck: To lead in these roles, you’ve got to be somebody who is respected from an intellectual perspective. [You’ve] got to be somebody of deep integrity. Deep commitments and a track record in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion [are] absolutely critical. [You need] somebody who is a strong manager, who understands complexity and can manage a lot of competing interests and who knows how to manage the resources. Somebody who can fundraise is really critical. Somebody who, as Michelle describes, cares deeply about people is absolutely critical. And finally, somebody who understands the world we live in today [such as] using social media technology.

Q: Well, this has been a fascinating conversation. I want to take a moment to thank both of you for taking the time to share some of these perspectives with our audience. We’ve been chatting with Shelly Storbeck, who is global education practice lead and managing director for Diversified Search, and Michelle Piekutowski, Carnegie Mellon University’s VP and chief human resources officer.

This conversation is part of a series of talks that we’re having with higher education leaders on higher education’s new era, and the most pressing and challenging issues facing the sector. You can find those conversations and more at Deloitte Insights.

Cover image by: Jaime Austin

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Cole Clark

Cole Clark

Managing Director | Higher Education


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