Higher Ed Tech Talent: Get 'Em, Keep 'Em (If You Can)

Key Takeaways

  • The hiring search for technically skilled employees to join institutional IT departments encounters multiple challenges, including the disparity in salaries for technology jobs between higher education and industry.
  • One solution is to hire new staff upon graduation and train them in the skills needed, benefitting the institution's IT department and the individual's career development.
  • The best approach is to know your market, know your job, understand your staff, make staff success your success — and be a mensch.

David J. Hinson, Former Executive Vice President and CIO, Hendrix College

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 many private higher ed institutions, it's an even worse comparison (which might seem counterintuitive 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 admissions director competes only against other schools when looking for new counselors, you're up against startups, banks, insurance companies — 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 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 — are possible, but they take an intentional professional development strategy and active participation in an open and honest dialogue with your staff and reports about 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 and a handful of large technology employers, with the largest "big" (well, BIG for a state with 2 million citizens) city located more than 30 miles 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 find people for positions requiring specific talents and be even close to competitive, salary-wise. This strategy has the natural benefit of being able to shape a young person's professional outlook and career, without the baggage of previous habits (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, relatively low-pressure work environment, ample down 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's a Necessity for Survival

Sad but true, training — and travel for training — are often the first things axed when the institution's leadership comes looking for low-hanging budget savings.

But here is where you earn your pay: you have to fight to keep training alive.

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

Training is actually your 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.

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

Putting off training and travel for training for anything other than "we can't pay the bills" is foolhardy; it virtually guarantees apathy and distrust in anything else you do to try and rally the troops.

But the most obvious benefit to 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 create "forced fun" departmental outings. You don't have to hold impromptu celebrations for every life event. 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 demonstrate 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 famously said, "I can explain this to you, but I can't understand it for you."

Mentor Your Staff

You didn't hatch into your present position fully formed, even though we all tend to think we got to where we are by dint of will. We often have an unshakable belief our intrinsic talent and consider ourselves indispensable to our organizations.

Well, probably not. 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.

Now, it's your turn.

I'm not simply talking about taking your direct reports under your wing, either. Very few of us haven't already been where most of our staff are in their jobs. Every position under your control gives you the opportunity to apply some form of mentorship to good effect.

Having a good mentoring 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 — wish them all the best. And mean it. Because they will go on to work for your competitors. Become a parent of a student who will come to your school. Become a key vendor, maybe. Or become your next boss.

Beyond that, the team left behind will see how you react to their colleagues leaving, and hear how you talk about those who left. If they hear you denigrate employees no longer around to defend themselves, it doesn't take a lot of imagination for them to project how you might discuss them when they leave.

Transition and leaving are part of the gig. Celebrate those who move on so that those who remain will 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 who 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.

The best approach is to know your market. Know your job. Understand your talent. Make their success your success.

Be a mensch.

Everything else flows from there.