Why Higher Ed Needs to Invest More in Staff Professional Development

One of the prevailing paradigms in higher ed these days is student success. Cynics decry it as a framework devoid of meaning. After all, haven’t all of us in higher ed existed to ensure student success at all times? As in: how is this “new” or advancing the field? But more narrowly constructed, many universities, colleges, and community colleges frame their missions and strategic plans around it.

Student success can mean many things. It can entail access – ensuring that education remains available to all to the degree possible. It can include breaking down scheduling and financial barriers so students are able to complete their programs and graduate to a rewarding career. And it can mean that institutions provide services for its increasingly diverse students, such as food insecure students, first generation students, etc.

But what does your higher ed institution do for career success for its staff? Anything?

Mine has a number of formal programs and initiatives I applaud, including a university-wide mentoring program, a boot camp for new managers, and extremely reduced tuition for those who wish to pursue another degree. Maybe yours is the same?

But I can’t help but think our higher ed employers need to do more for staff who dedicate their work to serving their campus communities, faculty, administrators, and students. I get it. Resources are TIGHT. The institutions I’m about to highlight can barely serve their student populations, but I think that the benefits justify the costs of expanding the scope to serve and develop staff.

Maybe it’s just where I work (our pay is notoriously low, and I mean even within the public higher ed sector and our metropolitan area), leading to constant turnover and churn. I see it in entry level positions and mid-career colleagues all the time. Entry-level folks leave for greener pay pastures, and mid-career folks eventually have to leave because it can take 8-10 years to achieve the entry-level unit/team leadership job title. (Because the folks in leadership aren’t going anywhere, and we have people staying in work longer, resulting in a trickle-down of long-tenured leaders and very few entry points into that level).

There are all kinds of efforts for higher ed to survey and gather data from local employers and entire workforce sectors nationwide to plan and better align degree programs and content with employers’ needs. (Here’s an old example from Chronicle of Higher Ed; I’ll try to find a more up to date version).So why isn’t higher ed taking a look at themselves? Figuring out succession planning, and actively investing in developing those future knowledge, skills, and abilities in its existing workforce?

And career services units serve students. I’m not aware of any that assist staff to help them network and meet others outside their department / role, or do campus staff job fairs to broker introductions between campus units that are seeking to fill openings and potential applicants wanting to showcase and grow their talents and experience. So while yes, the individual must still network on their own, such events would make the process easier and help departments find and meet internal candidates they don’t yet know. After all, many hiring managers highly value institutional knowledge. It means that that person will get up to speed faster and be a contributor, rather than a trainee, sooner.

What is the responsibility of our employers to offer us professional development that helps us branch out and learn new skills – ones that may not be directly related to what we do now? Universities require us to take courses outside of our area during our graduate programs, but restrict staff professional development to our lanes – to things that are investments in and advance the skills & knowledge we use in our current role. But giving us the freedom to gain new skills opens up more possibilities for staff to take on new job responsibilities, rather than wait to get promoted based on further mastery of our current skills. Joshua Kim explains that far better than I just did in this Inside HigherEd article exploring the differences between staff and faculty career models.

Advancing within the organization can lead to happier employees, higher engagement, and greater productivity, so it’s a win-win for an employer. Not to mention it’s far cheaper and faster to hire an internal candidate than find & onboard and acculturate an external candidate, so further reason our employers should strongly consider greater investment in current staff.

If your university or college does do amazing work in professional development of staff, please let me know! I’d genuinely love to hear about it!

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