HR as a Change Enabler
We’ve all read the research: studies that foreshadow an aging population in which workers 55 and older will grow at approximately four times the pace of the overall workforce during the next 10 years; labor shortages of as many as 30 million workers by 2030 to replace retiring baby boomers; and Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicating that today’s graduates will likely have between 10 and 14 careers in their lifetimes. All these predictions seem to signal the grave potential for a weakened institutional memory following the retirement of longtime faculty and staff, increased competition not only for leaders but for employees of all categories, and a much more frequent turnover of workers than higher education has experienced in the past.
So why is it that in a recent study of the Council of Higher Education Management Associations, few survey respondents (12.6 percent) named workforce demographics as a top-three driver of change, and concerns about a lack of skilled workers ranked lowest (1.6 percent) among 14 potential threats to higher education’s success? Is the message of impending workforce challenges simply not getting across to higher education leaders?
A Significant Concern
According to the CHEMA report—for which NACUBO was one of 22 association sponsors—workforce-related challenges likely are of significant concern and deemed an important driver of change by institution leaders. One reason the survey’s rankings may not reflect this sentiment is that certain other factors may overshadow these concerns. Those factors include insufficient financial resources (60.5 percent), technological change (32.6 percent), and changing student demographics (23.7 percent)—the top three drivers of change identified by respondents.
Then, too, perhaps specific HR-related concerns are accounted for in other responses. For instance, changing student demographics carries definite HR implications. As the report notes, success in attracting and retaining students from diverse backgrounds will require campuses to create climates that welcome diversity. A diversity-friendly environment is certainly needed by employees as well as students. Other findings from the study likewise point to the fact that higher education is well aware of human resource challenges. Nearly 35 percent of respondents flagged personnel management as one of the three biggest issues commanding their time and attention.
More specific nuances regarding HR concerns came through anecdotally in the individual interviews with association representatives. While combined survey responses may not have flagged the lack of a skilled workforce as a major threat, interview participants did note challenges of recruiting and retaining skilled workers. They also voiced concerns about a graying leadership and competition with the private sector to hire skilled workers. A key challenge echoed by several was the issue of compensation and the struggle higher education will face if it cannot compete in the areas of salary and benefits. Interview participants also acknowledged that demographic changes will require additional hiring from the corporate sector to ensure strong leadership, not only with regard to institution presidents but also leaders of functional areas.
Preparing for Future Challenges
Perhaps the most sobering indictment with regard to the current state of HR in higher education centers on a list of change enablers for which survey respondents were asked to note the extent to which they either agreed or disagreed that their institution was well positioned for the years ahead. The premise of the survey question was that to succeed in anticipating, planning, and implementing change, institutions would need to achieve high levels of capability in eight areas: leadership, decision making, governance, technology, student services, human resources practices, institutional culture, and knowledge of the external environment. While respondents indicated confidence overall in terms of leadership, student services, technology, and knowledge of the external environment, human resource practices ranked lowest on the confidence scale. Thirty-eight percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that the HR practices of their institutions were positioning them well for the future.
As the report notes, this rating of HR practices as a change enabler was perhaps the telling question where respondents voted their collective concern regarding their readiness to tackle human resource challenges that lie ahead. What does this mean in the context of all of higher education’s many and complex future challenges? For starters, more work is needed by our industry to position higher education to recruit and retain the best and brightest of tomorrow’s workers and to identify and cultivate the very strongest leaders for our institutions. We can begin by sharing strategies and solutions in the pages of HR Horizons and through NACUBO’s many networking opportunities.
John Walda is president and chief executive officer of NACUBO.
“The Future of Higher Education: A View From CHEMA” (July 2006) was jointly sponsored by 22 member associations of the Council of Higher Education Management Associations to identify emerging drivers of change and their implications for higher education. Author Philip J. Goldstein is a research fellow at the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR), which designed the study and analyzed the 190 quantitative surveys distributed to board members of each association and 58 qualitative interviews with association representatives. Though the study is available free of charge, you must go through the ordering process to gain access to the study. Once the process is complete, follow the instructions provided via email or on the NACUBO Online Publication page.