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Staff Retention in Higher Education: What Can Supervisors Do?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Melissa Nieto
July 7, 2023

As I write this article, two more staff members at the college I work for, the University of Houston, have announced their departure. In the last few years, more and more staff members have left and I often wonder, what can we do to increase retention and decrease turnover? What can our supervisors and leadership do, if anything, to encourage staff to stay and discourage them from leaving?

A survey conducted by CUPA-HR showed that staff members in higher education leave for various reasons. Some of the top reasons why staff leave include an increase in salary, remote work options and opportunities for advancement. Of these reasons, managers in higher education should be able to make some accommodations early on that would enable greater staff retention. For example, they can provide more access to professional development by hosting training courses and workshops geared towards staff interests. At the University of Houston, we often see surveys that ask staff what they would like to see in terms of professional development opportunities, and although staff may give their feedback, their supervisor may not support those opportunities. Therefore, it is essential for supervisors to be encouraging and supportive; they should take the time to know what their staff is interested in and provide opportunities for growth in those areas, or provide support for available opportunities on campus. Supervisors and college leaders should be aware of the professional development opportunities available to staff and should encourage and support staff attendance. Otherwise, it is no use to host development opportunities if leadership makes it impossible for staff to attend.

Supervisors should also want to create a culture that supports professional development and growth for their staff members. After all, employees that feel supported are far more likely to stay in their unit. Academic Impressions reported that supervisors overestimate the support they provide for professional development. In my own experience, I have had supervisors that have asked where I would see myself, career wise, in the future, and have created opportunities for me to grow towards those professional goals. The support I felt from those supervisors was the reason why I stayed longer in those positions. Staff members that see a path to growth are more likely to stay. In the case of salary increases, supervisors should not wait until staff members ask for a raise or promotion to arrange it, they should be proactive about it and plan for it ahead of time. Coming up with a plan on how to work towards promotions can be beneficial for both the supervisor and the staff members because the plan can demonstrate a need for the promotion. Although promotions may not be readily available, staff members should be made to feel that they are valued and that there is a plan in place for their career growth.

Additionally, supervisors should consider how much flexibility is available for remote work. Since the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen an increase in remote work, and staff seem keen on that opportunity. After all, it saves staff money from gas and parking and saves time spent traveling which staff members view as beneficial. The time saved can provide an opportunity for more family or personal activities which can help staff improve work-life balance. In the CUPA-HR Higher Education Survey, it showed that 71 percent of employees felt that their job duties could be done remotely. For positions that cannot be done remotely, supervisors could consider flexible schedules that allow employees to work different hours. For example, at the University of Houston we have a flexible schedule during the summertime, in which staff members can choose to work four, 10-hour days instead of five, 8-hour days. A similar approach could be taken for departments that need employees present in person.

Lastly, higher education supervisors and leadership should not wait until staff leave to consider retention strategies. It is important to keep retention a top priority since, after all, research shows that it costs the institution more money to lose staff rather than keep them. In their retention consulting, The Change Leader, Inc notes that “employees quit because efforts were not made to retain them early enough”. Therefore, higher education institutions should make retention a priority and should want their staff to feel supported both financially and professionally. Although a pay increase is something staff consider when deciding to move, it is not the sole reason why they leave. For that reason, higher education supervisors and leadership should focus on staff retention early on, when staff are first hired. One way in which this can happen is by meeting with staff to discuss career goals, along with what supervisors can do to help their staff members reach them.  

Author: Melissa Nieto is a recent graduate of the Master of Public Administration Program at the University of Houston where she works as a Program Director.

Email: [email protected]

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