AGB Search Principals Monica Burton and Peggy Plympton, in conjunction with Senior Principal Lyn Harper of Mercer, hosted Building the Workforce for the Future, the sixth event in the Leadership Connections in Higher Education series for higher education leaders. The session centered around the presentation of a Workforce Planning project undertaken by Villanova University in partnership with Mercer. Harper and Ray Duffy, Associate Vice President of Human Resources and Affirmative Action Officer at Villanova, discussed the steps needed, the important questions asked, and the timelines that are achievable for institutions looking to reflect upon and revise their workforce planning structure.
The current situation
The session began with an analysis of the current job market in the United States, detailing the employment gap both prior to the pandemic and at present. The current figure of 5.5% unemployment remains persistent and at the same time, employees are struggling under waves of challenges; staffing shortages and resource deficiencies leave workers feeling exhausted and burned out by the end of their day, and rising costs of living and the impacts of inflation chip away at wage gains that were made in the last decade, further exacerbating feelings of stress and frustration.
There is no “silver bullet” for these challenges; increasing base pay for everyone is not always the answer. In fact, many employees note that increased pay does not address their core concerns. Higher education is also unable to compete with the for-profit marketplace on a compensation-first strategy. The key is to think bigger and focus on the total rewards that a campus community can offer.
By leveraging the distinctive qualities of the higher education workplace, colleges and universities are in a strong position to attract and retain top talent. The role the institution plays in the community at large, the commitment to mission, the strength of employee relationships, and the diversity of career paths that are available are among many aspects of the higher education workplace that should be championed to motivate and attract talent.
A framework for meeting the challenges
Recalling the steps that were taken by Villanova and Mercer during their Workforce Planning project, Harper and Duffy recommend framing initial discussions around internal assessments of future critical skills and current skills, how to close the gap between those needs, and how to retain and deploy those skills in a feasible way. “Lots of HR systems are more about deploying programs rather than strategic thinking,” said Harper, putting in place quick responses to problems that need deeper solutions. Slowing down to perform analyses and consider what options are truly available to an institution is a critical step, and both Harper and Duffy recommend discussing these issues with the leadership team and the institution’s board of trustees while keeping the institution’s strategic plan in mind. “Without the right infrastructure, it’s hard to move forward in a strategic manner,” said Duffy. By looking holistically at total rewards, rather than emphasizing salary, institutions can create solutions that may be nontraditional and beneficial to their employees.
Once the institution has performed these internal assessments, a plan can be developed for success with the support of stakeholders. The importance of consistent communication and engagement with stakeholders cannot be overstated, and it is important that they are included in the process from the beginning. Another critical step is to hold working sessions with area-specific groups composed of individuals immersed in the operations and knowledge of the field, who know best what is needed for those positions to succeed. Many of these employees have never had the opportunity to bring forth their ideas and concerns in this kind of open forum, and it is important that their voices are considered during the restructuring process.
With these steps in place, the institution can then develop recommendations and create an actionable roadmap for success with priorities identified and timing estimated, most likely with a two-to-three-year timeline. Harper also urges institutions to actively monitor the implementation of their decisions and the effectiveness of the new strategies. Questions institutions need to ask include: Do we have the technology to monitor our results? How are we going to define success, which might include measuring staff turnover? What other unexpected results have arisen as time passes? Knowing the benchmarks for success and possessing the capability to monitor progress is critical to the restructuring process.
The presentation elicited a healthy exchange of ideas around employment strategies. Of particular note were the following topics:
Participants noted that overall workers have shifted their priorities to focus more on balance and a healthy lifestyle. Exit interviews show, for example, that “it’s not the money, it’s that nobody reached out to find out what was valuable to [them] both as a person and as a worker,” said one participant. While the pandemic certainly had a profound impact on the landscape of work, many institutions have smartly been able to take advantage of workers’ shifting priorities. Benefits such as flex work or remote work are highly prized, though since not all departments and offices on campus allow for these structures, institutions are now looking at a variety of compensation options for those workers, from institution-wide flex scheduling and/or allowing employees to build their own schedules, to honoraria for those whose work is impossible to transition to a remote model.
Several institutions discussed the strategy of “transfer programs,” or periods of time during the summer when workers have an opportunity to explore other departments on campus for professional development and a chance to explore other career areas that may be of interest. Such programs allow for individual growth, while further fostering the talent that is present on campus.
Flexible benefits eligibility as a retention strategy
Retention and bonus incentives are complicated topics for higher education. Institutions, in most instances, are unable to compete with bonus payments alone, and in general the participants in this discussion agreed that it was not the preferred method of retention for their institution. However, competition is inevitable, and many institutions find themselves in a retention-reactive cycle, not only competing with outside sectors, but internally with long-time employees asking what their institutions can offer to keep them. Some of the suggested alternative programs which could incentivize workers to join and stay, outside of retention bonuses, were immediate benefits eligibility for tuition, retirement, and healthcare, rather than an extended waiting period. With the ongoing childcare crisis, some institutions are also exploring options for childcare stipends and expanded parental leave. At Villanova, they are taking a holistic approach to family benefits with their college tuition programs for students whose families worked at the campus for all four years of their high school education.
All participants agreed that building out a sustainable workforce is dependent on engaging leadership. It is important to meet employees where they are, in their offices and departments, and allow them to feel seen, heard, and valued. Continually engaging with employee groups, listening to concerns from the workforce, and answering questions about market challenges fosters a healthy work environment where employees are proud to be part of their institution thanks to their inclusion in a collaborative process.
AGB Search and Mercer have collaborated to bring important and relevant topics and discussions with subject matter expert panelists to a wide range of higher education leaders. Participation in the Leadership Connections in Higher Education series is by invitation only to facilitate small-group discussion; however, inquiries to participate and topic suggestions are welcome. To learn more about the sessions, please email Monica Burton (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Margaret “Peggy” Plympton (email@example.com). For more questions about this specific project, please contact Lyn Harper (firstname.lastname@example.org) .
About AGB Search
AGB Search, based in Washington, D.C., specializes in providing tailored services, including permanent search, interim search, and compensation evaluation, to higher education institutions. Founded by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) in 2010, the firm has a unique understanding of the qualifications critical for effective higher education leadership. The firm has conducted more than 950 searches at institutions ranging from small, private colleges to large public institutions and research universities. www.agbsearch.com.
Mercer believes in building brighter futures by redefining the world of work, reshaping retirement, and investment outcomes, creating true health and well-being that benefits all. Mercer’s approximately 25,000 employees are based in 43 countries and the firm operates in 130 countries. Mercer is a business of Marsh McLennan (NYSE: MMC), the world’s leading professional services firm in the areas of risk, strategy, and people, with 81,000 colleagues and annual revenue of over $19 billion. Through its market-leading businesses including Marsh, Guy Carpenter and Oliver Wyman, Marsh McLennan helps clients navigate an increasingly dynamic and complex environment.