Higher ed IT staff want flexibility. Can universities deliver? 

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Like nearly every other industry, higher education is bringing workers back to the office full-time, after more than two years of remote and hybrid schedules. And just as in the tech, finance and automotive sectors, managers are running into pushback and dissatisfaction from IT workers who say they don’t need to be on campus to do their jobs.

And while IT leaders across higher ed have been advised that offering more remote-work options can aid with hiring and retention, institutions’ rules don’t always make that possible. And many roles require a physical presence, such as in-person tech support for students and faculty or managing hardware inventories.

Throw in competitive opportunities from private companies that still allow full-time remote work — often with better pay — and institutions are facing a difficult landscape as they move beyond the pandemic.

“This is a very significant issue for higher education,” said Vicki Tambellini, president and CEO of the Tambellini Group, a higher education research firm.

A few college and university CIOs can set policies for their staffs, but others conform to institution-wide policies. Tambellini said payroll policies can also limit remote work options.

“Many institutions have deep institutional rules and policies and procedures, some of which are legislated and can’t be changed unless they go through committees and approvals and governance procedures,” Tambellini said. “Some are less formal, but most institutions have strict protocols that have to be followed.”

Some IT leaders have found creative ways to get around these inflexible policies. Jenny Paulsen, deputy CIO of the University of South Florida, told EdScoop her department has been expanding internships and part-time jobs for current students at the Tampa school.

“We find that a lot of them, especially our master’s students, come to us with some good working experience,” Paulsen said. “They can really hit the ground running and a number have gone on to become employees within our IT organization.”

Tambellini said many universities are turning to IT contractors to fill staffing gaps. While outsourcing can be a short-term fix, demand for third-party support — particularly in cloud migration — is giving the IT services industry a worker shortage of its own, she said.

“The psyche of the workforce has changed, not just in higher ed, but across the globe,” Tambellini said. “Institutions are going to have to look at this as part of their long-term strategies, because otherwise this will continue to hold them back.”

Remote expectations

One immediate concern universities must reckon with is applicants’ expectations that they won’t have to be in the office every day, Paulsen said.

“One of the first questions we get asked is, ‘Can I really work remote?’” she said.

The University of South Florida’s IT staff went remote in March 2020 and has mostly stayed that way more than two-and-a-half years after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Paulsen said that In that time, productivity actually improved.

“USF as an entity has embraced remote work, so we’ve been very fortunate in that,” she said.

But, as in many other institutions, staff at USF have lately been turning over in greater numbers.

“We had a low turnover before COVID — around 1 to 2% was fairly typical for us,” she said. “But in 2021, that grew to a little over 7%. That’s been a big adjustment for us.”

Paulsen said she’s lost IT staff to companies including NASDAQ, Microsoft and Blue Origin.

“The technology that we’re using now at USF is the same that’s being used in the corporate world so their skills are in high demand,” she said.

Call in the freelancers

Short-term workers are also on the rise. When it hasn’t been possible to find full-time staff quickly, Paulsen said, she’s started using UpWork, an online freelance marketplace, to fill gaps on a temporary basis. (She said this has been especially productive in finding scrum masters to lead agile software projects.) She has also asked current staff to try out new roles on a voluntary basis.

“We have a program we just launched a few months ago where we asked if there is anyone on our staff who wants to try out being a scrum master,” Paulsen said. “We had a great response from our own pool of staff who said ‘Hey, I’d love to try this out.’ They’re now doing that as an extra role and part of their career growth.” 

Higher education institutions can’t compete with the salaries being offered by the corporate sector, Paulsen said. But USF has invested in workforce development and creating an inclusive work culture, she said. Virtual “water cooler” meetings have helped team members feel more connected to each other, and there are breaks built-in between meetings, she said.

A recent internal survey of USF’s tech staff found that most workers strongly agreed with the statement that their manager cares about them, Paulsen said.

“A little over half of our staff over the past year have had a chance to grow their career — either taking on some additional new roles or receiving a promotion,” she said. “We’ve focused a lot on career development because we realize that people often stay where they have a chance to grow in their careers.”

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