The lingering effects of COVID-19 are still being felt by higher education institutions. Students may be back in classrooms and seminars, but faculty staff and academics are either leaving their jobs or at least thinking about it. According to Forbes, more than half of university faculty have considered either changing career or retiring early in the wake of the pandemic.

Many institutions have been forced into budget cuts, freezing salaries, and cutting positions. This has left those still employed to feel the strain, with stress and burnout key factors in why some are casting envious glances at corporate jobs or considering giving up work entirely. Further, the experience of being able to work from home during the lockdowns has seen many higher education staff questioning whether they want to now return to campus full time. At a time when many opportunities in other sectors allow remote working, workers at educational institutions are questioning whether they are willing to give up that flexibility.

While the staff at many of these institutions are getting older, Universities and other higher education centres will need to find and recruit the next wave of academic talent. But to do so, HR leaders face challenges that will need to be overcome to engage and attract applicants. To do so will require coordinated strategies, shaking out of the habit of short-term, practical decision making and planning out how to best support the talent of the future.

While technology can be a huge driver for recruitment, institutions must also challenge the perception that they are no longer desirable places to work– both by current staff and the next generation – and adapt to a changing landscape with new recruitment strategies.

Be Proactive

Its not enough to only think in terms of the roles that need to be filled now, reacting to hiring demands on a case-by-case basis. HR leaders and recruiters need to be proactively building a pipeline for recruitment that can look to meet future opportunities. This involves building relationships with talent and academics and creating warm talent pools that can be turned to as needs arise.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to create and maintain lists of students and graduates from your own institution who have impressed in their work and studies. Keeping these names on file to be reached out to when positions become available.

Developing these relationships may also require encouraging senior faculty to reach out to these students and speaking to them about potential career opportunities. HR leaders and recruiters can build upon the relationships that have already been built between faculty members and graduates to nurture this pipeline.

Attending conferences and panels is another important way to engage with academics and potential future recruits. These can be ideal places to meet future candidates and gain first-hand insight to their methods and academic rigour. Reaching out to academics after these events who have impressed can be the beginning of a relationship that could pay dividends when the right opportunities come up in the future.

Prioritise good candidate & employee experience

It is crucial for HR leaders to consider the perspectives of current and future employees. It’s true in every sector, but especially so in higher education, which is lagging behind the corporate world in delivering exceptional employee experience. This means establishing and effectively demonstrating an organisational culture, communicating values, and ensuring a positive high-touch experience for those applying for roles.

Not only is your institution competing with other academic centres for the best talent, but increasingly with the private sector as well. Many universities will have a clear and solid brand when it comes to recruiting students, but few have done the same when it comes to recruiting faculty staff.

The pandemic has caused a shift in terms of what applicants are looking for from the roles they apply for. No longer is it simply about the money but also about benefits, and crucially, what an organisation or institution is like to work for. Whether this means opportunities for career advancement, remote working possibilities, or just a positive and uplifting culture and atmosphere. These things matter to applicants and institutions must treat these as aspects of their brand – communicated across literature, digital, and social channels.

Understanding this brand means engaging your current employees and establishing open and honest dialogue with them; get their feedback and assess where the strengths of your organisational culture lie. If there is work to be done to improve the culture, now is the time to do it. Experience matters now more than ever.

Emphasise diversity

Typically, higher education institutions cater to a diverse range of students, with a broad array of programs and courses that cater to the needs of a wide variety of interests. This helps to create a naturally diverse student population, but can the same be said about the staff? The student environment will certainly appeal to applicants looking for an accepting and non-discriminatory workplace but receiving a diversity of applicants is not the same as hiring a diverse staff.

Not only do your recruitment strategies need to appeal to those across social, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, but you also must take steps to ensure that those involved in the hiring process are able to successfully combat their unconscious biases. Having a Diversity and Inclusivity policy is a great start, but also consider having a post-interview survey with candidates who decline positions and use this information to adjust your strategies and hiring processes.

Using an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) can help with all these things as you can not only anonymise applications to ensure a blind hiring process but also compile data across departments and understand what departments are less diverse, and automate touchpoints with applicants, including surveys, to keep them engaged.

Promote work-life balance

Higher education institutions must also recognise the need to promote a healthy work-life balance. Luckily, the flexible nature of the types of work required does mean that these institutions are well placed to provide these types of options. Whether this means arrangements for remote working or flexible hours, or offering child-care support for those that need it, the important thing is that these benefits are clearly communicated in literature and on your career site.

The prevalence of occasions typical to universities, such as cultural activities, sporting events, and entertainment evenings that would be impossible or impractical in the corporate world is also a benefit to be emphasised. These types of things will be especially appealing to people just starting their careers or to those looking to leave stressful environments and must be included in any messaging on what makes your institution a wonderful place to work.

Ultimately, institutions must make a coordinated effort to attract and recruit the best talent. While the challenges inherent to the post-pandemic world do make this more difficult, HR leaders can build relationships and drive recruitment through strong communication and brand building. Technology can also play a vital role in helping to manage applications, complete employment checks, and promote opportunities for diversity hiring.

We have put together a toolkit for higher education institutions on what they will need to consider in terms of technology that can improve the hiring process. Download it here.


About the author

Tristan Potter

Tristan has a decade's worth of experience writing content and copy for organisations across Bristol and the Southwest of England. He has written on a diverse range of topics, including technology, philosophy, politics, and recruitment. His writing has appeared in The Drum, HR Grapevine, and The Guardian, among other publications. He joined Hireserve in March 2022.