Providing a Clear Path to Advancement for IT Staff

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Information technology worker retention is imperative in higher education, and providing staff an opportunity to grow skills can improve staff satisfaction, leading to increases in productivity and retention.

photo of stone path through green pasture
Credit: antb / © 2019

Information technology in higher education is under a state of constant change. IT staff need to be able to maintain and grow their technical skills, but what about their overall professional growth? The latest report from the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research—The Higher Education IT Workforce Landscape, 2019—shows that for job success, technical staff also need "Business skills such as effective communication and the ability to manage relationships within the institution."

Many technical staff want to continually grow and for that growth to be recognized, and promotion is one way to achieve that recognition. However, many staff do not understand the organizational process for achieving a promotion. According to the report, "Promoting employees internally results in better performance evaluations, with employees staying in their position longer than external hires." Given how difficult it can be to recruit many IT positions, retention is very important in higher education.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink says that for staff with similar characteristics to IT staff, the best motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. By creating a "how to promote" document for each position, you can provide staff with a clear path to advancement and an opportunity for personal and professional growth—all in the context of allowing them to learn to work independently (autonomy), allow them to master their skills, and to understand the purpose of their positions.

The workforce report also provides a list of important skills to consider in a "how to promote" document. This list includes business/communication skills as well as technical skills, and you could customize this list to the needs of the position. The list is in order of importance and includes items such as the ability to communicate effectively, the ability to manage relationships within one's institution, strategic thinking and planning, the ability to manage complex projects, and technical proficiency. In table 1, I provide a sample "how to promote" document for a system administrator position in which each skill increases the level of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. For example, troubleshooting at the associate system admin level researches and asks questions, a system admin works independently by being able to research problems and find solutions, and a senior system admin has mastered the skills by exhibiting advanced troubleshooting skills and assisting others in finding solutions.

Table 1. Sample "how to promote" framework for system administrators


Associate System Admin

System Admin

Senior System Admin

Communication Skills

Exhibits strong interpersonal and communication skills; able to train users in applications and operating system fundamentals and to write basic documentation

Exhibits strong interpersonal and communication skills; able to write purchase justifications, train users in complex topics, make presentations to an internal audience, and interact positively with upper management though meetings, email, and verbal communication

Sets an example for others; exhibits strong interpersonal and communication skills; able to write proposals or papers, act as a vendor liaison, make presentations to customers or client audiences or professional peers, and work closely with upper management


Is responsible for own performance with oversight from supervisor

Is responsible for own performance

Provides input to evaluation of team members' performance

Server Setup

Sets up servers

Creates and maintains server template

Reviews template for accuracy and security; makes recommendations and enhancements as needed


Researches and asks questions when troubleshooting

Researches problems and finds solutions

Exhibits advanced troubleshooting skills and assists others in finding solutions


Once you have a framework on how to promote, the employee has the opportunity to request training, mentoring, conferences, and other activities to develop the skills needed to move up to the next level. The Higher Education IT Workforce Landscape, 2019 provides a list of activities to assist in professional growth, broken down by level of position that should be considered (CIOs, managers, or staff). Examples of activities include conferences, data analysis opportunities, technical training, and mentoring.

There are many online opportunities for training and professional development that could be provided to staff, such as O'Reilly, which provides books and videos on a variety of topics including leadership, career development, and technical skills; this training can be done as time allows. In addition, professional companies such as WaterMark provide webinars and onsite customizable training on personal and professional development, leadership, strategic planning, and other topics.

EDUCAUSE offers opportunities for technical staff to develop skills, demonstrate competence, and be connected through the annual conference and online communities where staff can meet others in their field and share information and ideas.

By having access to a clear path for promotion, IT staff can clearly see the opportunity to grow their skills and be rewarded for the work and dedication that they invest in themselves. Hopefully through this process, staff will have great job satisfaction, which will, in turn, increase retention and productivity.

Michelle Rakoczy is Associate Director Infrastructure & Operations at the North Dakota University System, Core Technology Services.

© 2019 Michelle Rakoczy. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.