Higher Ed Tech Talent: Get ’em, Keep ’em – If You Can

Higher Ed Tech Talent: Get ’em, Keep ’em – If You Can

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Acquiring top people – and keeping them happy – in Academic Computing is not for wimps.

For starters, higher education salaries for technology jobs (in general) are typically lower than private industry. And, for private higher ed institutions, it’s an even worse comparison (perhaps somewhat counter-intuitive, especially if you’re currently writing checks to such an institution).

This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that when a higher ed IT director or CIO goes into the market for new talent, they compete not solely with other higher ed institutions, but with all surrounding businesses affording technology employment. So, while your admission director competes only against other schools when they go looking for new counselors, you’re up against startups, banks, insurance companies – heck, practically anyone with a data center (or even an internet connection, for that matter) that can offer a competitive salary to your prospects.

If this set of market realities weren’t enough to discourage the most stalwart hiring committee, add in the additional prospect of luring talent to a beautiful, bucolic small liberal arts college located in the hinterland – miles away from amenities, convenient transportation, entertainment options, or infrastructure.

I think that about sets the stage for the challenges posed.

Daunting? Yes. Impossible? No.

I would be a cruel, cruel person if I didn’t offer some glimmer of hope on how to navigate these difficult recruiting waters.

Successful recruiting – and retention – can be done; but it takes an intentional professional development strategy, and it takes active participation in having an open and honest dialog with your staff and reports and their career development.

During my time as a CIO in a small town (pop. 60,000) in the middle of Arkansas, we recruited within a local talent pool that consisted of three local colleges, a small handful of large technology employers, and with the largest “big” (well, BIG for a state with 2 million citizens) city located some 30 miles plus distant.

Here’s what we did.

Get ’em While They’re Young

Truth be told, our number one strategy for acquiring the best and the brightest was to hire people right out of school. In fact, for many of our skill positions, this was the only way we could for specific needed talents and be even close to competitive, salary-wise. This strategy has the natural benefit of being able to also be the first out of the gate to shape a young person’s professional outlook and career, without the baggage of previous habit (good or bad).

Sell ’em on the Benefits of the Academic Life

Let’s be honest. There is more than a grain of truth to Laurie Ruettimann’s assertion that companies pay employees in culture when they can’t pay them cash. That still doesn’t mean that the attractiveness of the academic life – usually solid health care and lifestyle wellness benefits, relative low pressure work environment, ample down / “soak” time, intellectually and culturally stimulating events and activities, generous and predictable project lead times – aren’t great selling points to prospective employees. There is much to love about working on a college campus. Sell it up.

Reality Hits

OK. You’re able to snag a young ‘un or two. You’ve lured someone looking for “serenity” on a college campus. But now you’re hit with a request for skills, systems, and talents that you don’t have.

And you can’t write a check for.

What do you do?

Training is Not an Option – It is a Necessity for Survival

Sad but true – training – and travel for training – are often the very first things axed when the institution’s leadership comes knocking, looking for low hanging budget savings.

But here is where you earn your pay – you have to fight, literally fight – to keep training alive.

Because without it, you’re simply biding time until the talent you want to keep have walked out the door. Because the talent that can, will.

Training is actually your very best tool for keeping employees engaged and excited. It allows them to envision where they will be a few steps down the road, because they can see themselves becoming more valuable to their institution.

Truly, the more skills your talent acquires on the job certainly makes it easier to walk out the door for greener pastures. But it also promotes trust, because it says that you value that person’s future, and are interested in them as individuals with ambitions and goals that you are tangibly invested in seeing them achieve.

Putting off training and travel for training for anything other than “we can’t pay the bills” is foolhardy, because it virtually guarantees apathy and distrust in any other rah-rahing you may do to try and rally the troops.

But the most obvious benefit to having a strong and dedicated commitment to training, is that it is often the only avenue remaining to budget constrained organizations to obtain new skills and master emerging technologies.

Know – and Care – About Your People

I’m not going to ask anyone to go out and hug a tree, or adopt a puppy.

But if you truly want to develop a strong and cohesive team, and have any hope of keeping that team together, it begins and ends with understanding your people, and caring about how they are developing as people and professionals.

You don’t have to go and create “forced fun” departmental outings. You don’t have to hold impromptu celebrations for every life event.

But you do have to care, and show you care, through authentic actions.

Know when their parents are undergoing a health crisis. Be aware that their living situation is in transition. If you understand challenges facing your talent outside of work, it should make your workplace communications more empathetic and compassionate. There. I said it. Compassionate.

Because, if you truly want your people to care about their jobs, you start by being a mensch yourself, and demonstrating care for the people you oversee.

You don’t have to be creepy, you don’t have to be intrusive, and you can remain professional.

Like Mayor Koch of New York once famously said, “I can explain this to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”

Be a Mentor

You didn’t hatch into your present position fully formed, even though we all tend to think that we got to where we are by pure dint of will, and the unshakable belief that we are intrinsically talented and indispensable to our organization.

Someone – or an army of someones – along the way recognized your nascent ability, and took a risk on helping you up. Training you. Developing you as a professional.

And now, it is your turn.

I’m not simply talking about taking your direct reports under your wing, either. Very few of us haven’t been where almost all of our workers are in their jobs. There is no position within your span of control where you cannot apply some form of mentorship to good effect.

Having a good mentor relationship with one or more employees forms some of the strongest bonds within an organization. And, in turn, great mentees will go on to be great mentors as they move through your team.

Wish ’em Well When They Go

When your top performers go – and they will – you wish them all the best. And you mean it.

Because they are going out to work with your competitors. They become a parent of a student that will come to your school. They become a key vendor.

Or they become your next boss.

But beyond that – the team that remains behind will see how you react to their colleagues leaving, and hear how you talk about those that left. If they see that you denigrate employees no longer around to defend themselves, it doesn’t take a large amount of imagination for them to project how you might discuss them when they are no longer about.

Transition and leaving are part of the gig. Celebrate those that move on, so that those remain can aspire to remain.

What Else?

Gee. I wish I knew.

Because I’m still learning after 30 years in the business.

I’ve hired people that I was immediately sorry I hired. I’ve celebrated decades of work with colleagues to whom I gave their first professional job. I’ve fired people I knew didn’t deserve to be let go, but who I could no longer afford to keep.

If I had to impart anything approaching a “magic bullet” for academic tech talent hiring and retention, it’s this: be open in your communications to talent and prospects, be honest in your assessments of career development and advancement opportunities, and be respectful of individuals under your charge.

Your best defense is to know your market. Know your job. Understand your talent. Make their success your success.

Be a person.

Everything else flows from there.

Image credit: StartupCollective.

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