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Human Resources

Smart Hiring

Facing future talent shortages, higher ed institutions implement strategic staffing plans.
University Business, Sep 2007

LAST YEAR, THE UNIVER-sity of Texas at Austin formed a workforce planning unit to examine staffing issues at the school. The team's sole responsibility is to understand more about its workforce, both now and in the future. Topics like talent gaps, employee turnover, and demographics are discussed, and then the unit's members work to develop solutions to whatever staffing problems the school is facing.

"To look at any staffing alternative is going to take resources and time," says Julien Carter, associate vice president of HR at the university, which supports approximately 15,000 staff and faculty. "It's an issue for us, if for no other reason just to ensure that we have competent staff who are available to serve the faculty and students of this institution."

But as schools look toward the future, staffing becomes a big question mark. More and more baby boomers are exiting the workforce, which is fueling the skilled labor shortage. Some institutional leaders are concerned that they won't be ready, that they will be unable to recruit the talent they desperately need. So they're focusing their energies on designing strategic staffing plans that enable them to explore their school's risks and vulnerabilities as well as marketplace opportunities in order to build a competent labor force.

Carter says her school is at the beginning of this ongoing process. The three member unit is inventorying employee skills and informing decision-makers about potential challenges such as positions that may be hard to fill, ways to decrease employee turnover rates for each generation, and best practices to help prevent talent drain.

In higher education, some positions remain unfilled for years.

As the unit began its research, she says its members realized the stark differences between the generations. Generation Y, for instance, needs feedback and rewards more frequently than baby boomers, who are accustomed to annual rewards and infrequent pats on the back. "So one of the things we're trying to recommend is a salary administration policy that allows [rewards] to be spread throughout the year," she says. "It's going to have more meaning to that generation than just getting it all at once."

Deeper dives are also in its forecast. The unit will address "this looming threat on the horizon," she says, with deans and vice presidents at the school so they can better prepare for serious staffing challenges instead of simply reacting to them as they occur.

The signs of the talent shortage are everywhere. So why aren't more schools engaged in strategic staffing? What are they waiting for?

Perhaps the wait is for more resources. Many HR departments are short-staffed, struggling to perform daily HR tasks, much less deal with future challenges. Forming such a unit is not without sacrifice. In UT's case, remaining HR staff had to pick up the duties of these three individuals. In the short run, Carter admits that her department's effectiveness was a bit diminished.

Still, colleges and universities can't afford to fall behind. With a strategic staffing plan in place, administrators will understand more about what motivates tomorrow's workforce, align their policies and practices with employee expectations and, in the end, evolve into an employer of choice that attracts and retains quality workers.

"In the short and long run, that was our motivation for having this unit," Carter explains. "Otherwise, we're just dealing with the next fad, we're not really being strategic. Without this unit-the pace of change today is so rapid-there is just no way that our HR staff of 69 people who provide service to over 15,000 people could meet customer expectations."

Even if the talent shortage didn't exist, strategic staffing still would translate into good HR management at any institution.

Yet this isn't a common practice within universities or colleges. There are many reasons why. Some point to their selection process. The vetting process is very long and detailed. Selection is often conducted by broad committees, which require a great deal of documentation of academic and management success before anyone is hired, adds Warren Cinnick, director of people and change practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Chicago.

As a result, some positions remain unfilled for years, something that rarely occurs in the private sector. Others believe that higher education focuses more on students than internal staffing models and on current recruitment practices and employee competencies rather than opportunities for changing the school over time. What's more, people often climb the career ladder across university settings. Deans, for instance, typically aren't hired from the ranks below but are discovered at other schools.

"The desire of academic cross-development [is something] we don't see in companies," Cinnick says. "Companies typically don't say, gee, you grew up in Pepsi, now let's change you to Coke."

However, he points to a handful of higher ed institutions that are applying strategic staffing in unconventional ways. Some share joint custody of university centers and assistant professors who teach classes for one school in the morning and for another in the afternoon.

He notes that Virginia Tech, the University of Maryland, and George Washington University (D.C.) share space, administrators, and professors. So do DePaul University, Lake Forest College, and the College of Lake County all in the Chicago area. This strategy is an elaborate version of job sharing and a flexible way of using talent to teach "gut-level" courses, he says. While successful for mid- to lower level positions like assistant professors who prefer flexible schedules to publish and conduct research, he suspects the same approach wouldn't work for senior positions that demand full-time focus and loyalty.

If HR hires people to fill jobs, your staff could be stuck in neutral.

Other organizations develop action learning events where groups of employees band together across internal functions at different schools to solve strategic issues. He says IHEs get a chance to learn more about employees' abilities and test-drive them in critical roles before being promoted to senior positions like dean or chancellor. Did they exercise broader thinking ability? Were they able to build consensus? Did they exhibit strategic thinking skills?

Considering what's at stake, IHEs can no longer wait for the bell to ring to think strategically and collaborate with other places of higher learning.

"If you don't protect your own leadership pool with some planning and thinking, somebody else will be there to borrow from that pool," says Cinnick. "If you don't have a plan that develops people, moves them forward, somebody else will sing that siren song to them and they'll go in that direction."

HR leaders need to ask themselves two questions: Does HR hire people to fill jobs? Or does it recruit candidates who can grow into positions that reflect the changing marketplace? If your practices are more in line with the first option, watch out. Your staff could be stuck in neutral, unable to develop new skills demanded by their new environment. High turnover is usually one of the symptoms.

To prevent this scenario from happening, Babson College (Mass.) formed an internal task force that is creating a model or portfolio for faculty of the future, explains Elaine Eisenman, dean of executive education at the college, which supports over 3,000 students and 730 employees.

Part of the process includes identifying the future skills needed by the college to meet market demand. At the same time, the school is creating a database of faculty skill sets beyond content expertise.

"We're a very applied school, so many of our faculty worked as practitioners before they grabbed their doctorate," she says. "We're trying to [build] a talent inventory. Ultimately, we'll be able to go to our database, and if we need a faculty member who speaks three languages and has experience teaching entrepreneurship, we can find [that person] easily."

Likewise, the Peralta Community College District (Calif.) is in its second year of strategic staffing. The district is ensuring that the mission of its four colleges- educating and transferring students to four year institutions and offering community based learning and skill development-is driving expenditures, explains Wise E. Allen, president at Berkeley City College within that district.

Allen formed an internal strategic planning group that meets every other week during the academic year and a volunteer committee that includes employees representing financial and educational planning. But he also meets each month with the presidents from the district's other three colleges, as well as the district's chancellor and vice chancellors. They decide which colleges receive specific positions and coordinate course offerings to avoid competition between colleges.

In the past, staffing was unstructured, even haphazard at times. There were a series of fragmented groups and no body of administrators guiding the district. Now, he says, all staffing requests are funneled through this district committee, which he believes has made the most significant impact upon the district.

"It's making us really decide what we're going to be here at Berkeley City," Allen says, adding that the college has identified each program's future needs and goals and how dollars will be allocated during the upcoming school year. "This is supposed to lead to a master plan for the district. We didn't have that before."

Not many institutions do. What about your school? Where is it headed? Strategic staffing can act as your road map, helping you make smart hiring decisions so you end up exactly where you want to be.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues.