Hidden talents in higher education

HR can take advantage of employees’ skills that are unrelated to their jobs
By: | Issue: October, 2014
September 17, 2014

Consider the accounting clerk who coordinates community events; the help desk manager who moonlights as an exercise coach; or even the campus registrar who is also a freelance writer.

Colleges and universities are loaded with talent, yet many employees’ competencies unrelated to their job are virtually unknown. At a time when budgets are tight, activities are being scrutinized and recruitment is fierce, human resources professionals can maximize in-house talent across departments to accomplish key goals—and, just as important, enrich the lives of employees.

Jerri Mizrahi, learning and development manager and personal success coach at Boise State University, plans to develop a talent management system that includes a database of employee competencies beyond their day jobs.

“If you want people to stay, then you want the job experience to be a rewarding and enriching one all the way around,” she says. “You want to be able to manage the talent of your staff, which creates opportunities in so many different areas.”

The plan in action

Several years ago, an academic administrator at Boise State was experiencing caregiver challenges. Once she resolved those issues on her own, she approached HR, hoping to share what she learned with others on campus. HR developed a program called Conversations with Caregivers, which supports an annual conference, hosts a website featuring local resources and holds monthly meetings during the academic year.

“This all came from one person’s effort,” says Mizrahi, adding that caregiving was completely unrelated to that administrator’s job and responsibilities.

The university’s culture encourages employees to contribute their expertise toward solving school problems outside their job or department. Three professors—from accounting, modern languages and communications—partnered with HR and the provost’s office to create a work-life flexibility program. Likewise, HR has been working with employees throughout campus to improve or simplify administrative practices.

“We jokingly call it the ‘Six Degrees of Boise State.’ Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody who has experience in a different area,” says Mizrahi. “We like to tap those resources.”

Informal and creative

Developing a comprehensive database of employee skills is a tough task. Many institutions struggle just to collect basic job-related skills, says Karen Hutcheson, a partner in the talent division at Mercer who works mainly with colleges and universities.

Schools need to get creative in revealing these hidden talents, Hutcheson says. For example, a talent show coordinated by the finance and administration division at one college showcased employee abilities—everything from artwork to musical performances. Community outreach departments can also promote employees who participate in local projects by featuring them in online newsletters or on social media sites.

Hutcheson says many employees are drawn to new opportunities that require their unique skills, support the school’s mission and enrich their overall work experience.

David de Wetter, director of organizational alignment and talent management at Towers Watson in Dallas, believes institutions can’t be effectively managed unless competencies are built into individual job descriptions. He wants to see job classifications simplified and standardized so schools can identify their training or skill gaps, and then see what in-house resources are available to fill those gaps.

There are many ways to do this, de Wetter says. When one college updated its human resources information system, employees were asked to note skills that fell outside their work, such as fluency in foreign languages. HR can now use the system to locate employees who can perform a variety of tasks across campus.

Because there isn’t yet a widely available platform to gather information or inform employees about where else their skills might be applied, HR at some schools falls short. Still, says Yelena Stiles, a senior consultant at Sibson Consulting, it’s important for HR to recognize employees’ full capabilities.

“Although institutions have expanded their thinking on what traits and abilities contribute to performance, I don’t believe we completely grasp the full capacities of people,” says Stiles. “Why not see if we can bring the rich lives that people live outside of work into the workplace?”

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.