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Smart Strategies to Build the Higher Education Workforce

 It’s easy to get caught up in the process of hiring for leadership roles, operating under the assumption that those roles are the “most” important to overall strategy. While recruiting talented, transformative leaders is, of course, a necessity, it’s also a good time to re-evaluate hiring strategies for entry-level and mid-level roles. After all, at many institutions, those entry-level hires may very well be the rising stars who wind up rising through the ranks to become the leaders of tomorrow.


Building from the Ground Up

When considering your recruiting for entry- and mid-level roles, it’s important to also keep skills gaps in mind. Skills are evolving so rapidly that some workplaces (and individuals) may struggle to keep up. One 2022 study from Gartner suggested that the number of “new skills” for a given job could grow at a 6.3% annual rate, and some workers may need to be entirely reskilled by 2024. Reskilling mid-level employees can be much more time-efficient and cost-effective than trying to constantly hire externally for fast-changing skills, and it can also help to burnish your reputation as an organization dedicated to both career and professional development.


According to recent research, career development can be a significant bonus to an organization. Employees at companies who are dedicated to promoting internal candidates tend to stay 41% longer than employees at companies with lower rates of internal hires. Furthermore, 73% of employees today want to hear about opportunities to advance, but, on the other hand, employees who lack a clear sense of potential internal career paths are 61% more likely to leave their institutions. Career mobility is also linked with higher retention rates, higher employee satisfaction, and a higher sense of being “valued.”


When you’re hiring at lower and middle levels, consider how candidates might fit into your institution in the long term. What does your succession planning look like? It’s also important to consider what factors your internal hiring and career development program focuses on. SHRM suggests a few key components, including:


  • Diversity: Ensure that your talent pipeline is diverse, both in terms of demographics and in terms of ideas/thought processes. Prioritizing diversity at all levels, from entry-level hires to the C-suite, is important for any institution with a consistent commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging – and it is key to ensuring the organization is flexible enough to meet a variety of future challenges.
  • Transferable skills: As previously mentioned, skills requirements are evolving quickly. A career development program should focus on building skills that are flexible, transferable, and stackable.
  • Mentorship and leadership development: If you’re interested in promoting leaders from within, commit to programs that can help develop that pipeline from the start. This could mean a formal mentorship program, leadership development opportunities, ongoing education and certification, and more.
  • Empathy: People work in different ways and need different support to achieve their best results. Understanding that – rather than trying to mold everyone in the same way – is critical for a thriving pipeline. Strong leaders lead to the employee, rather than expecting the employee to bend to them.
  • Feedback: There are different kinds of feedback, which can be especially valuable when working in tandem. Formative feedback, provided with regular check-ins, can help identify when and where individuals are thriving and where things aren’t as clear, allowing for in-the-moment correction and praise. Alternatively, summative feedback can evaluate learning and growth on a broader scale and/or against specific benchmarks. Together, these two forms of evaluation can provide a clearer picture of the state of your talent development, what’s working, and what needs addressing.


Laying Out a Path for Career Development

 What does all of this mean, then, when you’re at the hiring stage? Ideally, you’ll look for people at mid- and lower-levels who don’t just meet core requirements, but who are autonomous, problem solvers, and perpetually curious. Those are the ones who will not only excel in their initial roles, but who will “own” their jobs and climb the ladder to keep adding value to the institution over time.


Emotional intelligence (assimilation to core values and culture), resilience, and a track record of “getting things done” are also key factors to seek in your new hire. For mid-level employees in particular, these qualities are vital (entry-level employees may not have enough of a history in the field to be able to evaluate appropriately). It’s about balancing evaluations of past performance (as a predictor of future performance) with evaluations of long-term potential.


In today’s working world, certain external factors can make career development and internal promotion even more challenging. Relocation, for instance, has emerged as a major sticking point in the last few years. Only 1.6% of job seekers are currently relocating for work, compared to 4.6% the same time last year. A variety of concerns are driving these decisions, from high costs of living and moving costs, to the stresses of uprooting a family, to the cultural and lifestyle aspects of the destination.


When recruiting for entry-level or mid-level roles, those relocation factors become even more of a concern. Executive roles are likely to come with higher pay and significant “perks” that can make a relocation – even a stressful one – feel like it’s worth the hassle. For roles that don’t fall into this category, though, it’s important to try to find other elements that can help offset the stressors and make a role requiring relocation more attractive. These might include:


  • Financial relocation assistance (i.e., partial coverage of moving costs)
  • Assistance for family matters (i.e., finding a job for a trailing spouse or finding a good school for children)
  • A robust network of support to help “get settled”
  • Clarity on the future of the role and its potential development at the time of interview/hire
  • Clarity on cost-of-living differences and how the role’s compensation accounts for that
  • Additional vacation or paid time off
  • Tuition exchange, reimbursement, or experiential credits toward finishing a degree
  • Campus housing or reduced rent
  • Free meals in the dining hall during work hours/free parking
  • Free membership to the gym and all community events/concerts on campus
  • A four-day work week at ten hours a day


Ultimately, the “path” of career development looks a little different today. It’s not just a linear progression, but something more flexible and creative. In higher education, it’s critical to have a plan laid out as early as the interview stage. Talk to employees and candidates about what career development looks like, how people have “climbed the ladder” in the past, and what they want to accomplish. Not only can this approach help with both hiring and retention, but it lays the foundation for open dialogue and a long-term, positive working relationship that benefits your institution and your employees equally.


By Jacquelyn D. Elliott, Ed.D.


About the Author

Dr. Elliott is a Higher Education subject matter expert across multiple functions, including Strategic Enrollment Management, Faculty, Financial Aid, Institutional Advancement, and Student and Academic Affairs. Dr. Elliott brings to the table a unique understanding of an institution’s need for specialized talent and the candidate’s desire to affect positive change. She has worked with more than 200 schools across the globe in a consulting capacity and has coached countless cabinet-level executives on strategy, job placement, meeting enrollment, net tuition, and fundraising goals.

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