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Specialist professional staff – the other recruitment crisis

It is increasingly difficult to fill specialist professional roles in universities, and new UHR chair Naina Patel has been investigating what can be done about it
This article is more than 1 year old

Naina Patel is chair of Universities Human Resources (UHR), and Chief People Officer at the University of the Arts, London

Problems recruiting?

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.

Vacancies within

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.

Unfilled roles

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.

Off campus

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.

11 responses to “Specialist professional staff – the other recruitment crisis

  1. I run IT and libraries at a post 92 close to London and it is practically impossible to recruit IT staff at the rates commonly found in universities. Private companies offer benefits like private healthcare, free gyms, pet care and free food and drink, as well as significantly higher salaries. Nearby councils and even other universities are using market supplements to attract our staff. USS is no longer an attractive pension scheme and councils, NHS and other universities offer the same or better. In any case IT workers are used to changing jobs often and don’t see pension provision as a significant attraction. There needs to be recognition that specialist roles in universities, like IT, need a bespoke offer that is attractive to the market.

  2. Great article and I’d add that because of the pandemic, it has caused people working in education to rethink their careers and makes changes and in some cases leaving the education sector altogether. I’ve worked in a number of institutions over the last four years and most of my colleagues have found the education sector to be toxic, unsupportive and unstable.
    In regards to my first point, I am one of those members who has decided to pursue a master’s degree this year and I have been forced to leave my institution because it won’t support me in my studies (one day a week). Furthermore, there are barely any courses in education that can support staff pursing further education, so this supports my view in employees wants to leave the sector.
    Institutions that are in education not support employees which to pursue further education. Shocking and ridiculous really. No wonder there is a recruitment crisis in education.

  3. This is an interesting article and recruitment challenges are really felt in professional services roles, salary scales in universities are no longer competitive or reflect the role expectations and there are no clear gaps in the published grading structures between grades but substantial expectations on staff based on their grade. Salaries and any benefits now lag behind the civil service and the private sector. Lots need to be done to retain and attract staff to the sector. Perhaps compounded by current events, however this isn’t new, there has been a slow erosion over the past decade within the education sector making it a less attractive sector for employment.

    1. Up to a point, though the University sector is still seen as a ‘safe’ option by many ‘failed in the real world’ university educated professionals, especially those that through their mistakes cost their previous employers millions of pounds…

  4. Back in 2006 when the single pay spine was set up, pay was in real-terms basically a grade higher. Now after almost 15 years of below-inflation pay rises, it’s no longer remotely competitive. On the academic side this can be compensated for somewhat by being more generous with promotions and being the only sector offering this sort of job anyway. On the professional services side, not only are most of the jobs competing with the entire country, but HERA and similar enforce paying them to be market-comparable with the prevailing wisdom for what jobs were worth what in 2006 if the pay spine hadn’t been eroded.

    (Is it time for UCEA’s annual “can we be more constructive about agreeing to cut your pay 6% real terms during a cost-of-living crisis” post, or is that in a few months?)

    1. Those of us labouring under the HAY system not in ‘professional services’ have seen the inherent bias towards those in PS roles of that scheme, at least HERA evened out the role/job family status biases. The across the board pay cuts the sector has suffered for years, long before the single spine we were well behind our ‘industrial comparators’, don’t help.

  5. Interesting article but I’m not sure the focus on senior and specialist roles here is entirely justified. In our university managers are increasingly “acting down” to perform basic admin functions, because we can’t recruit junior administrators: strategic initiatives can be put on hold but registering students for this term won’t wait! Admin work is also being pushed onto academic staff, usually unofficially without recognition in workload models: e.g. students coming to their tutors with non-academic queries because they can’t get a timely response from admin teams. Of course this means many tasks are being performed by overqualified people on salaries well above what we’d have to pay to fill the junior positions. One can fiddle around the edges of the problem, but the only real solution is a proper real-terms pay rise across the sector, to make it competitive with the private sector again.

    1. I would agreed. The Sector needs to look at staffing models and pay accordingly.
      University leaders instead of being able to lead, manage, support and improve the work of the teams, they are having to fulfil team roles as well as their own so you never get the improvements and leadership that teams and departments deserve and need to function well. Academic staff are overwhelmed and the cycle continues.

      The staffing models and pay are critical to success

      1. Problem is the admin roles expect far too much from people coming into a sector that seems to provide very little in the way of induction or further training, development and career progression opportunities. Not an attractive proposition to someone at the starting point of a career. Some basic organisational design, training programmes and talent management with opportunities to progress would take us to something like where we need to be. Can be done if individual institutions and the sector is willing to grasp the nettle and realise that its not only academic that need the investment (in many institutions this does still seem to be the case).

  6. Many Universities still seem to think they are employers of choice when this is no longer the case, for the reasons noted above. To these I would add that some, perhaps not all, Universities are seen as ‘not for me’ for many (particularly younger) people in the jobs market. As a sector there is a real need to look at how we project ourselves, how inclusive we feel and to address the lack of diversity in our PS workforce which is an increasing issue. And we need to change the way we write job descriptions which is incredibly opaque to anyone not already in the sector.

  7. Professions such as counsellors, mental health and disability practitioners found out during the pandemic that there was a world where they could work from home and provide services online. It is much harder to recruit to those areas now. With the constant government and media scrutiny of HE in these areas as well, the roles are far less attractive.

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