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Remember the good old days when many higher education IT leaders were confronted with the “do more with less” scenario?
After years of institution IT organizations stretched to the limit, with a global pandemic inserted for added impact, it seems software vendors are increasingly selling directly to business and functional offices with the implication that “you can implement our product without IT”. But this is rarely the case once implementation time rolls around, so those meager resources are stretched even further.
This small example underscores the current talent management crisis facing much of higher education IT. Obtaining, retaining, and replacing IT staff can be very expensive and productivity can take a major hit as a result, further draining IT resources.
Locally, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) has seen unprecedented IT staff loss during and coming out of the pandemic following decades of remarkable staff retention. Lagging compensation, less job security, burnout, competition from jobs offering 100 percent remote work and even the cost for those with longer commutes are contributors.
A rural location, limited funding, shifting fiscal priorities over multiple years and a tradition as our county’s largest employer to provide ‘permanent’ employment make heavy use of third-party staffing impractical. Therefore, local emphasis for third-party personnel is placed on one-time activities such as implementations, infusion of specialized skillsets and knowledge transfer. IUP IT typically does not assign permanent operational tasks to non-university employees.
Despite best efforts, succession planning and quick action in addressing staff loss are priorities like never before, especially given the long time needed to replace and then assimilate replacements to the extent the budget permits. IT workers have, on balance, more employment options and figure to be on the move for the foreseeable future.
Regardless of talent source, the harsh reality is much of higher education IT salaries cannot compete with a growing number of industries. An employee who might remain for 10 percent less pay may not stay for 25 percent less. Unfortunately, the local gap is even larger for some skillsets.
Therefore, a robust benefit package is key. This can begin by providing enhanced work-life balance in the broadest sense. A healthy mix of generous paid time off, flexible work schedules, strong health, and retirement packages, continued significant investment in employee training, reduced tuition for employees and their family, quality employee workspaces (including equipment and even furniture), remote work options and compensatory time can help in obtaining and retaining quality staff.
Higher education IT leaders need the best, most flexible talent management toolkit possible. Simply matching industry incentives coupled with lower pay will fail too frequently.
As an example, IUP IT used lessons learned during the pandemic to create a remote work procedure on the heels of a new university-wide telecommuting policy. IT leadership provided IUP’s IT team coordinators with a maximum remote work permitted for team members. Coordinators could adopt stricter limits. This provided a common framework even though team and individual limits are not identical.
Team variation is needed because a customer-facing IT employee, one working on classroom projectors or one working in telecommunications may need to be on campus quite a bit, where an application developer could possibly work remotely almost full time. IT employees can always choose to work onsite. All are required to be onsite, as needed, such as during an unexpected outage.
Local IT leadership can use the annual employee performance review process to work with employees to update an individualized career path with strong employee input. IT leaders cannot control the higher ed. industry, technology evolution, local user priorities and often not the budget. But they can help obtain and retain a more qualified set of IT employees if those employees can see a future for themselves by staying.
These career paths can then be incorporated into the planning process. Financial, technical, data, cybersecurity and even politics can play a role in effective IT project planning – especially those to either implement, migrate, or retire solutions. But planning decisions should also include a thorough review of personnel implications, as well, by mapping IT staff (not just skillsets) to their respective roles in those plans.
All of this speaks to the critical need to develop outstanding IT managers and leaders. Managers who are empathetic and prioritize accommodating individual staff life situations and their increasing stress to the extent practical. Progressive leaders who understand work and non-work activities do comingle for the modern IT workforce in an era when an IT professional needs to be ready at a moment’s notice 24-by-7. Skilled managers who celebrate recognizing achievement when the team or a staff member goes above and beyond the call. Perceptive managers to know how to address an employee who is not meeting expectations.
At IUP, one of the IT department’s techniques to support managers is conducting a quarterly open forum that serves as IT’s state of the union. This forum creates a sense of community, information sharing and a chance for staff to ask leadership questions so all can hear the question and answer together. A question from an employee is often also an unspoken question by other co-workers.
The most important piece of the forum is a ‘Kudos Korner’ segment where all positive feedback received by the IT department during the previous quarter - via email, help calls, phone calls, face-to-face interactions and in meetings - are celebrated. In cases where specific staff are mentioned, those names are reported to underscore that a single person can have a big positive impact. The recognition has no cost and takes very little time to compile.
But it is also the kind of action that can make a difference and higher education IT needs all the positive difference makers it can find. Both big and small.