Read any newspaper these days, and one walks away with an overriding foreboding that the future is full of uncertainty. A big part of this has to do with a major demographic shift involving the roughly 78 million Americans known as the Baby Boom Generation: as they age, a whopping forty percent of this bloc of the labor market will become eligible for retirement in the next two years. Inevitably, the leadership within the world of higher education will take a major hit.

It’s coming as the first of a rolling one-two punch for this industry. At the same time, many of the best and brightest young people who come to work in colleges and universities are choosing not to stay for long. In fact, young professionals under the age of 35 who join institutions are sticking with their jobs for only 20 months, on average. This double hit represents a major drain on the talent pool that will have to sustain the administration of higher ed schools in the coming years.

Several questions arise at this new crossroad. Why are so many new workers willing to drop their jobs for what they perceive are better opportunities elsewhere? In what ways do colleges and universities share some responsibility for the problem? Does this phenomenon represent the bursting of a bubble in an industry inflated by artificially high tuition and overhead institutional costs? Is the situation irreversible, or at least manageable—and if so, what can be done about it?

Greener Pastures

Certainly, the Baby Boomers won’t all retire at once; some will choose to work beyond their initial retirement age. But many of the newer faces are turning quickly to completely new horizons. Some are leaving higher education for other private or corporate industries; some are staying in education, but under different auspices, such as working for freelance, joining education-related businesses, or starting one of their own. Thus in colleges and universities a talent gap is growing, as younger employees feel less willing to make a long-term professional commitment to a single traditional institution.

Why the lack of loyalty among the new generation of workers? We at Higher Ed Live observe that some are simply responding to a general lack of career opportunities. Some who work in college offices for four, five, or six years without a promotion or raise will understandably perceive a lack of career path ahead of them. Also, some living in smaller cities face fewer choices regarding which institutions they might join that are within reach of home.

But employees have to share some responsibility for the problem, too. While some might leave the industry for more money, we believe that too often those who work in higher ed don’t approach their jobs with enough passion or pride. Taking greater personal initiative, perhaps involving some additional freelance work on the side, can help to get one’s voice to be heard among higher-ups within an institution. This helps one greatly to augment one’s own resume, move up the college ladder, and increase job satisfaction.

We do believe that those who believe in making a difference in the world of education should not abandon it; and leaving a particular institution for a private educational company does not amount to leaving education altogether, but rather represents shifting one’s role within it. It’s legitimate to care more about one’s craft than the environment in which one performs it. Moving to work as a private educational vendor will often mean better pay, a more impressive portfolio, and a greater sense that one is making a difference in the greater education world.

What does that leave for those who stay in traditional higher ed institutions? Unfortunately, a talent pool drained of much-needed energy, morale, and creativity. Many in college and university offices are proud to be in education and full of dedication, but are dissatisfied with their particular job situations. It’s very possible that in the future, schools will look more to outsourcing work to private vendors.

Making Higher Ed Youth-Friendly

Potential solutions to the talent bleed in higher ed do exist. Institutions need to make greater efforts to provide employees with expectations and opportunities to do the quality of work that is on a par with their peers in the private and public sectors. For example, web designers or videographers working for a university should have the means to compete with fellow designers or videographers in other sectors, in the quality of the content they produce—and should be recognized for their efforts.

Higher-ups in education need to encourage their employees, as often occurs in private industry, to take risks to develop creative ideas—even if at times that means allowing for mistakes to be made. Who knows what kind of innovative projects employees in admissions, public relations, or student life offices could develop if they were allowed the same 20% of work time that Google employees have to brainstorm?

Higher ed officials also need to invest in the future leadership of their schools. Partly, this means keeping employees engaged through maintaining an open, ongoing dialogue with them about their career paths. If in ten years most college and university presidents will have retired, they need to start cultivating the next generation of leaders now, by providing advice on how workers can take next steps in building responsibilities.

Part of that dialogue should also include discussion of any freelance work that employees are pursuing on the side. Freelancing demonstrates that workers are not finding enough fulfillment—financial, emotional, or both—in their day jobs, and employers need be aware of that.

Investing in future leadership also means making good hires—ones based not just on years of seniority, but on which applicants seem the best and brightest in their fields. In the future, this might involve hiring more leaders outside the traditional profile, such as looking to business leaders or political campaign management for talent.

And Vice-Versa

Part of the onus, however, also falls on younger workers. For their part, they must be willing to create the time necessary to make their creative projects succeed. They also need to be willing to initiate conversations with their employers regarding career paths and freelance work. And they must ask themselves whether their own passion lies more in applying their own specific skills, regardless of the industry they’re in, or whether they’re more dedicated specifically to higher education.

Those in the latter group have here a few points to ponder. While they might be experiencing some considerable professional frustrations, we encourage them not to give up in their efforts to serve students. Struggling to do this most effectively involves a battle of inches.

Monumental changes are coming to the industry very soon. Successfully navigating these changes and defining new rolls within them requires the conscientious foresight of education leaders, passionate work from those who will step into their positions, and a lot of open dialogue between the two as the changes come.


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Higher Ed Live

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  • Anonymous

    Quick turnover among younger workers is hardly limited to higher ed–Penelope Trunk keeps telling them to leave, not stay. And while few people are truly passionate about filing and xeroxing, there is a reason why people “pay their dues”–but precious little discussion about why doing so actually matters.

  • tb

    The biggest frustration, especially for those in the creative fields, is the slow moving machine that is higher education. Not only do many institutions not encourage creativity, they discourage it, choosing to stay the course and complain about all these new fangled social media and technologies that are making it more difficult to do their jobs. When it takes 2 years for legal to sign a contract to develop mobile apps, that is, in essence, putting you at least 2 years behind the game. The creative industries are fast moving, every changing entities, and higher ed needs to change the business model to fit that, because technology is not going away.

  • Anonymous

    I spent nearly 10 months on the job hunt for a position in higher education and what do I have to show for it, nothing. I now work for a small export & marketing company. I still really want to work for an institution but nothing had panned out. It’s like cause they can’t keep young employees they have they wont take a chance with new ones.

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  • wkc

    As a young employee who left a major university after nearly six years (and two promotions), let me help you out with some reasons.

    The concept of dead wood; i.e. employees with 20+ years of service who do not contribute much anymore, won’t retire, and keep the office in the stone age through their attitudes and practices.  No young person wants to work around those type of people.

    Exploitation.  I was an admin doing very specialized director-level work.  There was nowhere for me to go unless my position was reclassified and in a budget downturn, that wasn’t going to happen.  There was nowhere else for me to go in the university even though I showed great potential to move up through the ranks of my own department. This article chides young people for not taking initiative by doing freelance work in order to improve their position.  Let me ask you this: did ‘ole dead wood there have to do a bunch of freelance work to get their position?  Nine times our of ten, the answer is no.  Also, when am I supposed to have time to do this freelance work you speak of? 

    The universities do it to themselves, in my opinion.  If you want to keep young people, create an atmosphere that is more appealing to them and promote from within.  The way my former institution wrote job descriptions for open positions within my department was a huge reason why I could not move up and out of the little box I was in.  They all wanted experience doing this exact task, even if you had the potential and knew the principles and best practices, that was not enough.    So I left and many others before me had done so for the exact same reasons. 

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