Navigating Workforce Trends: Strategic HR Leadership in Higher Education

Here’s what HR and campus leaders need to know for shaping the employer-employee relationship in higher ed.
 Two people are sitting at a table in a library, talking.

Higher education institutions are facing significant challenges in recruiting and retaining employees. It has been clear for some time that HR and campus leaders must adapt and innovate to shape the employer-employee relationship effectively, especially as this extends beyond pay and flexibility. 
Frontline staff in higher education, such as administrative professionals, maintenance workers, groundskeepers, transportation, housing and dining staff, and custodians, also play a crucial role in the daily operations of higher education institutions. As HR leaders, we are at a crucial moment of being strategic partners and drivers of transformation for long-term employee success and the substantiality of higher education institutions.

Professional Development and Career Growth in Higher Education

A recent CUPA-HR study found that a notable dissatisfaction among higher education staff revolved around institutional support for professional growth. Implementing robust training programs, mentorship and coaching opportunities, support for research and academic growth, and professional development workshops and conferences can significantly enhance the career growth and satisfaction of campus staff and faculty. 
It is also important that these opportunities are highlighted during the recruitment process and are continuously discussed during professional development conversations. As more college campuses shift their focus to the changing needs of employees, Deloitte recently highlighted how institutions are exploring skills-based workforces. These programs can cover a range of areas, such as project management, leadership development, and technical skills. While some employees may need more focus on such soft skills as communication, time management, and teamwork, others may need more focus on technology and innovative practices. 
Mentorship is also critical and has a tremendous impact on engagement and retention. Pairing experienced staff members with newer employees provides guidance and support and fosters a sense of community within a campus. Conducting surveys and focus groups can help understand the professional development needs and interests of campus staff. Leveraging technology to analyze this data can further refine and target development initiatives. 
CUPA-HR is another resource for accessing various datasets to make a business case for skills-based learning. Ultimately, by investing in diverse and accessible learning opportunities, institutions can cultivate a motivated, skilled, and dedicated workforce. 

Recognition and Reward Programs for Campus Faculty and Staff 

Recognizing and rewarding the achievements of faculty and staff can boost morale and retention. Implementing programs that acknowledge outstanding performance, such as teaching and research awards and service recognitions, can motivate employees and reinforce their commitment to the institution. 
Staff Appreciation Days, for example, are an excellent way to celebrate the contributions of non-faculty staff members. During my experience working with frontline employees on college campuses, I have seen the profound impact of recognition on customer service awards, which acknowledge exceptional service given to students, faculty, and other stakeholders. After all, student affairs professionals and other frontline campus employees are among the biggest influences on students’ overall experiences and satisfaction with their college experience. 
Personalized recognition not only makes employees feel valued but can also boost morale, foster a culture of appreciation, and motivate staff to excel in their roles. Furthermore, recognizing long-term commitment fosters trust and can encourage employees to stay longer with their institutions. 

How to Create an Inclusive Campus Culture 

Creating an inclusive campus culture is vital for hiring and retaining diverse faculty and staff. The aforementioned study from CUPA-HR revealed that employees of color are less likely to want to work onsite than their white counterparts. Having worked at various predominantly white institutions (PWI), I have seen not only students but also staff and faculty of color feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or not welcomed on campus. Institutions have an opportunity to promote a sense of belonging through initiatives such as employee resource groups (ERG), cultural-competency trainings, and inclusive campus events, and most of this work starts in the hiring and recruitment process. 
Scenario examples can provide more contextual insights and reveal practical understandings around inclusion. A common question asked during most college-campus interviews might be something like, “Do you value diversity?” vs. asking the candidate to give specific-scenario examples of how they have implemented or supported diversity in their previous positions. 
These questions should be tailored to the specific job role. For instance, a candidate in a student-facing role might be asked different questions than someone in maintenance or groundskeeping. This is where specific questions around direct experience with diverse populations and creating inclusive environments, as it pertains to the role, becomes essential in the interview process. 
During my time at a PWI campus, I actively participated in a Women of Color ERG and realized that not all staff felt they belonged in this group, especially frontline employees. So, I worked with Spanish and Nepali speakers to create their own ERG on campus. The strategic process involved careful planning, active participation from the planning committee, and ongoing support from senior leadership. 
Inclusive strategies foster a supportive and engaging work environment for all employees and students, even amid efforts to curb diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives and replace them with terms like “belonging” and “engagement.” 

The Successful Path Forward 

Recruiting and retaining talented faculty and staff in higher education requires a multifaceted approach. By prioritizing an inclusive campus culture, supporting professional development and career growth, and promoting recognition and rewards, HR departments can attract and retain top-tier professionals. 
Embracing these strategies not only enhances the quality of education but also ensures the long-term success and sustainability of higher education institutions. As HR leaders, it is our responsibility to lead these efforts and shape the future of work in higher education.