Higher Ed HR: Buckle Your Seatbelts!

If you work in the HR department of a college or university – particularly a small to mid-sized private school, you better tighten your seatbelts, because we are going on a bumpy ride. Several big things coming down the pipeline are going to affect your institution, and your leaders will be—or will need to be—looking to HR for solutions.

If you are a small to mid-sized institution, it’s likely you are heavily reliant on tuition for your income, and those tuition dollars are getting harder to find. The pending enrollment cliff, compounded by pressure from large online schools, is going to threaten your ability to recruit new students. Unless you offer some unique, high-value programs, or offer an incredible on-campus student experience, it will become harder to fill your incoming classes.

CUPA-HR just released research showing that over 57% of non-faculty higher education staff report being “Somewhat Likely” to “Very Likely” to quit in the next 12 months. The Chronicle just published a survey where 77% of respondents said that “higher education is a less appealing place to work than it was a year ago.” To top that off, HRDive.com just released a report showing that the average wage increase in 2023 will be 4.1%. I bet your institution is not planning to spend that much, and if not, your “desirability” as a workplace just dropped another notch.

Let’s face it, Higher Education is a people business. For most schools, salary and benefits are their largest expense. If you need to cut costs, you likely have to cut people, and nobody likes to do that.

You can cut salaries and benefits by implementing a hiring freeze, or you can offer some form of voluntary separation program. Both of those options let you avoid a reduction-in-force or retrenchment, but that does not mean they are good ideas. While those solutions may seem more “employee friendly,” they are just the opposite because they allow you to lose the wrong people. You see, the strongest swimmers are going to be the first to jump ship. If you let attrition reduce your staff, you’ll lose a lot of good people and the ones you retain won’t always be your best, or at least your most valuable, workers.

If you need to shrink your workforce, you need to do it strategically; to do that well, you need to engage your HR department. You need a robust, well-functioning, and accurate performance management system in place so you know who your best people are, and whom you might be able to do without. You need to know your succession plans so you know who is critical, and who’s not. You need to know who has talent that can be redeployed to another area, or to a different role. While it is difficult—and unpopular—you will be better off if you make the hard decisions about which people and positions to cut rather than if you simply let the good ones drift away until you have your expenses where you need them.

Then, when you decide to cut, cut deep. Don’t just cut enough so that you can balance the budget, cut more so that you can spend again. Take some savings and invest that in your survivors. Increase their pay, increase their rewards and recognition. Show them how much they are valued. Work hard to keep those strong swimmers on board, because without them, you’ll be doing this all over again.

One last thing: as you reduce the staff, make sure that you also reduce the work. If your enrollment is dropping, then in some areas there should already have been a reduction of work, and lower staff makes sense. But in other areas, reducing the staff and still keeping all the work will simply burn people out. Figure out what must be done and what you can do without, and make sure to balance the workload with the staff size.

In Higher Ed, cutting expenses usually means cutting people, and to do that well, you need to engage your HR team. Make data-driven decisions about people, jobs, work, and expenses. Make the hard decisions, and then work twice as hard to re-recruit the survivors. These are hard times, and hard times require hard decisions. And a strong HR team can help you make better decisions.

Roger Dusing, PhD, is a Senior Consultant and the Higher Education Practice Leader at OMNI. He previously served as Chief Human Resource Officer at Park University for eleven years. With over 40 years of HR experience, including 30 years in C-suite level roles, he looks forward to reflecting his passion for higher education in his work to bring affordable, high-quality HR services to small- to medium-sized colleges and universities. 

Roger holds a PhD in Business Management, with a concentration in Human Resources from Northcentral University, a Master of Science in Administration from Central Michigan University, and a BS in Industrial Engineering from Bradley University. He also authored the book “I’m Fired?!? A Business Fable About the Challenges of Losing One Job and Finding Another.”