Pivoting to Higher Ed: 4 Ways to Successfully Recruit Tech Job Applicants (2023)

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As layoffs across the broader technology industry continue, colleges and universities still face challenges in hiring for IT positions. But higher education offers at least four benefits that can resonate with job seekers.

Pivoting to Higher Ed: 4 Ways to Successfully Recruit Tech Job Applicants (1)

According to Layoffs.fyi, more than 190,000 global technology workers have been laid off since the start of 2023. Many of these highly publicized layoffs—including those at Twitter, Meta, and Alphabet—have sent tech workers scrambling to find their next job. Yet despite this deluge of tech talent into the job market, those of us in the higher education technology field still face hiring challenges.

When I speak with peers nationwide, I hear the same recruitment stories: no applicants or small applicant pools, multiple failed searches, and top candidates who are whisked away by a competing offer before they start. This is evident as well in the EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues list for 2023, which includes "Evolve, Adapt, or Lost Talent" as the #3 priority.Footnote1

How do we get these tech workers who are looking for new jobs to pivot their careers to higher education, so that we can shore up our talent pools and pipelines? Over the past decade, I've discovered a handful of benefits that resonate with job seekers who may be unfamiliar with higher education. Below are four, along with tips for how to engage applicants during your recruitment process.

1. Highlight Mission-Driven Work and Colleagues

Colleges and universities are deeply rooted in mission-driven work. For tech workers who may be burned out and feeling like a "cog in the machine," higher education can offer something different. Our IT teams play both direct and indirect roles in ground-breaking research and transformative academic pursuits. For potential talent who are alumni of our respective institutions, highlighting the mission can be a unique draw back to a community that shaped them.

How to engage applicants: If you're able to do so, include links to your institutional strategic plan or mission in the job posting. This information can lay the foundation for your candidates to understand the current culture and value proposition of your college or university. During the interview process, emphasize the institutional mission and especially the pieces that your team works most closely with. If your college or university has a strategic plan, talk about how you support it, what initiatives the IT team is leading, and who you most often collaborate with on campus. To further personalize this, consider having search committee members talk briefly about how they have personally aligned with the institutional mission over their careers.

2. Sell Your Region, Community, and Cost of Living

Colleges and universities come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the communities they inhabit. From small rural towns to quintessential state college hubs to big cities, there is a community that aligns with a job seeker's preferences. Many of these communities offer affordable housing and a cost of living unimaginable to tech workers in San Francisco or New York City. College towns are also, generally speaking, wonderful places to raise families or start planning for retirement. Often, we are so busy highlighting and discussing the work that we forget our communities are selling points to our top job applicants.

How to engage applicants: While many of us have improved the quality of our tech job postings, we often forget to market the institution and the community. For positions that require relocation and/or in-person work, make sure public postings on external job sites include a blurb about what makes your community unique—from "best of" accolades to nearby attractions to natural resources. Additionally, as the recruitment progresses, consider having one or more search committee members share what they love about living and working in the community.

3. Market Your Tuition Benefit Programs

For applicants who are interested in pursuing additional degrees or who have children close to college age, tuition-remission programs are a "bottom-line" benefit with a potentially significant financial impact on a job offer. Tuition benefit programs look different at every institution, so be sure to highlight what your program offers and what makes it unique. Particularly for younger tech workers, the opportunity to pursue an advanced degree or certificate program can be attractive.

How to engage applicants: Do your postings mention tuition remission or dependent tuition as a benefit to employment? If not, they should! During the interview process, be sure to share success stories demonstrating how IT team members have successfully balanced work and academic pursuits.

4. Discuss Work/Life Balance

According to a study by Gallup, what Gen Z and Millennials want most from an employer is one that cares about their well-being; this is the #2 concern for Gen X and Baby Boomers.Footnote2 Do college and university IT teams sometimes work 50 hours or more per week during busy projects and go-lives? Yes. But the truth is that higher education often offers the closest thing to "balance" that is possible in the modern workplace.

At the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, we produce a biweekly IT staff newsletter. I've read features about colleagues who are competitive ballroom dancers, marathoners, novelists, award-winning apiarists, and actively performing musicians. Real hobbies and free time are things that many private-sector tech workers can only dream about. For people burned out by the private sector, higher education offers a different way of working.

How to engage applicants: Be honest and upfront about the realities of being a part of your team and how you prioritize the health and wellness of your employees. Discuss the ebbs and flows of your work and how teammates have been able to pursue their outside, nonwork interests while still providing high-quality service to your college or university.

Summary

Informing applicants of the advantages of employment is just one piece of the puzzle. We also need to help our hiring supervisors and search committees understand the differences they might see when industry-changing applicants are in the mix. In the same way that most curricula vitae are difficult for a start-up tech company to decipher, private-sector resumés can be challenging for those on higher education hiring committees to comprehend.

What's more, the standard questions we ask in interviews—questions heavily designed for candidates who already understand the higher education ecosystem—are likely to prove ineffective in bringing out the best from private-sector candidates. If you are open to private-sector candidates, you must instruct your supervisors and hiring committee members to discuss new and creative ways to evaluate these professionals. This can most easily be accomplished through situational and case-based example scenarios that illustrate the unique challenges of higher education (and decentralization) while also allowing you to understand how a candidate solves problems, works across institutional teams, and adjusts to new organizational realities.

Making small, but purposeful, modifications in your recruiting and interviewing process can attract a broader group of candidates and expand your applicant pools. You must also, however, take steps to ensure that you engage these applicants throughout the process and proactively address the needs and concerns of individuals who are pivoting from the private sector.

Notes

  1. Susan Grajek and the 2022–2023 EDUCAUSE IT Issues Panel, "Top 10 IT Issues, 2023: Foundation Models,"EDUCAUSE Review, October 31, 2022. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.↩
  2. Ed O'Boyle, "4 Things Gen Z and Millennials Expect from Their Workplace," Gallup Workplace (website), March 30, 2021. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.↩

Kate Hash is Assistant Vice Chancellor for Customer Experience at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.

© 2023 Kate Hash

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