The chances are that if you’ve tried to recruit into a professional services role in the last six months, you’ll recognize the challenge that HR teams and hiring managers are experiencing in universities up and down the country.
At a period of historically low unemployment – and we haven’t seen the level this low for almost 50 years – we are seeing real difficulties finding the right candidates, including for the specialist roles such as energy and sustainability managers that are the focus of new work that Universities Human Resources (UHR) is undertaking with sister-organisation the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE).
As incoming Chair of UHR I’m pleased that the organisation is collaborating with other sector bodies on shared problems. Yesterday UHR and AUDE published a first-stage report on our work on recruitment in estates and facilities management.
This is an early output from what we hope will be a longer piece of joint working. With the help of members from both organisations we’ll look at where the project should go next as we unpack a complicated problem.
Let’s unpack that unemployment statistic a little, because at first sight it seems as if low unemployment must be wholly good news, and a likely indicator of a thriving economy. But in fact we see that there are more than 1.2 million vacancies (during the summer of 2022). The right candidates aren’t available to support economic growth and business success, including in universities.
High numbers of older workers have dropped out of the workforce completely in the aftermath of the pandemic, while international workers struggle to read between the lines of shifting signals on the degree to which they are welcome in the UK in the years since Brexit. While media focus is on social care and agriculture as sectors previously benefitting from a consistent international labour supply, we know that universities need that input too, and that barriers around visas, costs and immigration processes have an effect on us as well.
Sophie Crouchman, UHR’s Strategic Projects and Research Manager, led this project on behalf of both organisations. The world of work has changed since Covid, there are new expectations around how and when and where we work, and the benefits that many colleagues have seen to their work/life balance and new flexibility options are now built into any job hunt they make.
As Sophie says:
These changing expectations coincide with a cost-of-living crisis. Potentially every worker is on the hunt to find a better paying role, that suits their lifestyle. The research indicates that universities can be seen as reluctant to meet those changing expectations, slow or unwilling to adapt salary scales, and that candidates are not necessarily aligned with university employers on benefits packages as a whole.
In conversations with both UHR and AUDE member universities during the summer of 2022 Sophie found that this challenge is shared by universities of all types – whether in city or rural locations, whether with a teaching or research focus – and in all kinds of estates and facilities roles. Many roles were being left unfilled for months, even after repeated recruitment rounds. Service levels dipped accordingly.
These conversations helped us get into the real detail of the problem. For instance, on-campus workers were newly aware of the extra travel and parking costs they were facing in comparison to colleagues either fully or partly working from home. Out-of-hours and shift working seem less popular options than they had before Covid. Even comparatively generous terms and conditions for those in security and housekeeping roles did not lead to the right number of qualified candidates.
Where market supplements were being offered problems arose because of an erosion of differential pay levels in comparison to experienced staff and supervisors. Comparable roles in other sectors were perceived as paying more: people voted with their feet.
Similar problems surfaced when considering the retention of staff. Some universities had experienced “poaching” of senior staff from local authorities or the NHS, never mind the private sector. Generous annual leave entitlements didn’t act as intended, with many saying it was difficult to use up the entitlement. In some teams more than 50 per cent of staff were over 50, creating concerns over succession planning.
The next stage of work saw Sophie examine the employment offer in other sectors, where the combination of benefits is occasionally notably different and includes a wide variety of options from menopause and fertility support, electric vehicle salary sacrifice schemes, help to rent, discounts on IT software, pet insurance and annual incentive schemes among the many ideas. Employers, particularly in the private sector, were moving towards offering a basket of benefits from which employees could make their own independent choices.
This work has generated a number of potential solutions while acknowledging there is little currently by way of co-ordinated action in this space. There is clear potential for HR teams to clear away some of the practical barriers.
Condensing HR processes via open days at which successful candidates can be offered the role has been shown to work in specific circumstances. Employee referral schemes, recruitment and retention bonuses, and the successful use of LinkedIn for this kind of role (often for the first time) were among the solutions offered.
But there is plenty more work to be done in this area, including the need to spread what good practice exists.
My thanks to Salford, Lincoln and Lancaster Universities for allowing UHR to share information on their recruitment approaches within the report, which includes a number of recommendations that we hope colleagues will find useful.