What is driving higher ed recruitment practices?

Today’s workforce expectations are prompting HR leaders to enhance the candidate experience, streamline the hiring process and promote value propositions
Carol Patton writes about human resources issues.
Carol Patton writes about human resources issues.

When asked to describe the future labor market, some HR professionals at higher ed institutions believe it will continue to shrink, be unstable and remain highly competitive.

Considering that the unemployment rate is 3.5%, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 each day, and college enrollment has declined for eight straight years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, their expectations are realistic, demanding many to reconsider, revise or reanalyze their recruitment strategies. 

Recruiters’ perceptions about workforce changes vary. So do their hiring strategies.

Those anticipating fierce competition are enhancing their candidate experience, growing and hiring their own, or thinking the unthinkable—accepting work experience as a substitute for a college degree. Some have streamlined their entire application and hiring process, believing that candidates will seek employment elsewhere if recruitment isn’t speedy. Others are clarifying their value proposition or promoting their good works, expecting millennials and Gen Zers to seek jobs at socially conscious employers. But regardless of expectations, everyone’s goal is the same: to recruit top talent.

Those anticipating fierce competition are enhancing their candidate experience, growing and hiring their own, or thinking the unthinkable—accepting work experience as a substitute for a college degree.

New world, new strategies

The University of Oregon is focusing on enhancing the job candidate experience, says Nancy Nieraeth, director of talent acquisition at the institution, which supports about 8,000 employees.

“We’re looking more carefully at how we frame positions for candidates,” she says. “As we announce positions, we focus more on a summary description.”

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Instead of identifying job responsibilities, Nieraeth explains that job ads describe what new hires will experience during their first 90 days and what they will be exposed to, so they can get a better feel for the university’s culture as well as the key deliverables that will be expected of them. 

Meanwhile, she says HR streamlined its application process and is reexamining job criteria. Is a college degree really needed for some positions?

HR also mines information to learn why job candidates don’t accept job offers and to better understand what makes a successful and unsuccessful candidate experience.

“It also helps to have clarity around your value proposition,” Nieraeth says, adding that a recruitment team works with faculty search committees to expand outreach and better articulate the higher ed institution’s commitment to diversity, its culture and community. “What’s our distinct experience? In Eugene, it’s the access people have to the outdoors. We try to find ways to describe [our community] that are compelling to people who have that interest.”

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Rural challenge

Not everyone wants to work or live in a rural area. That’s a hard reality faced by Ohio University in Athens, which expects some candidates to think twice about applying.

“We struggle at times to get good IT candidates,” says Nick Wortman, director of HR services at the university, which employs about 4,000 people. “We’re taking a harder look at minimum qualifications and being more competitive in terms of [remote work opportunities], making sure we’re not pigeonholing ourselves, limiting the candidate pool unnecessarily.”

The university works closely with departments to vet new recruitment policies and operational guidelines that focus on diversity and inclusion; cast a wide applicant net; accept proven experience and training instead of a college degree; address technology solutions; and speed up search processes.

“We are also making conscious efforts to better advertise our benefits through job postings and conversations with candidates during interviews,” Wortman says, pointing to the institution’s generous transgender healthcare benefits and parental leave policy that exceeds legal requirements. “It’s just about being competitive, highlighting and offering benefits that people want, and moving at a speed that ensures you’re not losing candidates to other employers because you haven’t moved fast enough.”

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Strong foundation

Some colleges and universities expect competition for talent to grow even more fierce in the years ahead. In response, one university strengthened its in-house recruitment strategies while another turned to branding.

“One university did a great job of identifying communities within its own ecosystem,” says Ben Varquez, managing director and partner at Whistle Work, a New York-based national recruiting consulting firm.

Varquez explains that the higher ed institution cultivated relationships with a variety of groups, including the campus radio station and an honors society chapter representing pre-med job seekers. He believes it’s easier to entice and expose students and recent grads rather than external job candidates to in-house career opportunities.

After recognizing it was no longer the only substantial employer in town, Varquez says leaders at another university focused on branding by researching people’s perception of the institution. Leaders wanted it to be known as the largest and top employer across a variety of fields, including health care, since it also supported a hospital and research center. Then, they hired an outside firm to develop a consistent employment brand that shaped conversations, whether someone clicked on the university’s career page or social media sites. 

“Organizations are making big investments in their own employment branding,” says Varquez, adding that every college or university has a brand whether it knows it or not. “Before you start recruiting, make sure that your house is built on a solid foundation. That will trickle down to how you recruit.”

Carol Patton writes about human resources issues.

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