Overcoming Challenges in Professional Staff Recruitment in a Post-Pandemic Market

It’s a common complaint from organisations looking to hire that the job market has been particularly tight. In the aftermath of the pandemic, some of the challenges faced by university recruitment teams have been exacerbated, whilst entirely new ones have emerged. With fierce competition from the commercial sector for finite talent, shifting candidate priorities and new emerging skill demands, there is significant pressure for recruiters to be creative and adaptive in rising to these challenges and establishing a strong employee value proposition.

A recent UniForum Roundtable event brought together HR and recruitment leaders from member universities in Australia, New Zealand and the UK to discuss the most pressing professional staff recruitment challenges currently facing the Higher Education sector and how their teams are adapting to these challenges.

Figure 1 presents how the group ranked five areas of challenge. What follows is how the group is experiencing the three biggest challenges at present. Following these we outline three strategies for addressing these challenges.

Figure 1. Participant response to question ‘How would you rank these challenges within your university context?’ (% of votes from Roundtable Attendees)

The challenges

1. Increasing strategic focus

The increasing need to move away from a reactive approach to recruitment was a key theme of the discussion. Experience among UniForum program members is that the reactive approach has created a professional services workforce in which most individuals are in unique roles. Few of these roles have clear career paths and limited overlaps between roles reduces the value of working collaboratively with others who have the same responsibilities. The reactive nature of the sector at present only serves to exacerbate the challenge of competing with the commercial sector as universities find themselves increasingly on the ‘back foot’.

Since the pandemic, thinking has shifted away from crisis response towards longer-term planning. Nonetheless, significant work remains to build a shared understanding of the role of strategic workforce planning. A shared understanding of this will be critical to enable better integration of recruitment with other elements of the university to enact the overall organisational strategy.

2. Competing with the commercial sector

Competing with the generous salary and benefits packages of the commercial sector has long been a challenge for the university sector. Additionally, the cultural advantage of a more flexible work environment once advertised by universities has largely been eroded by the commercial sector’s quick pivot to greater work-from-home flexibility as the ‘new normal’. With these elements in mind, members spoke of the present challenge to appeal to in-demand talent, in particular strategic IT, cyber security, and developer roles. Also front of mind was the need to reduce recruitment timelines to compete with more efficient processes in other sectors and minimise lost opportunities. The commercial sector’s new-found flexibility looks unlikely to continue forever, however for the HE sector, the opportunities for improvement highlighted by this competition should still be heeded.

3. Establishing a strong employee value proposition (EVP)

Within the current ‘employee’s market’, greater emphasis is being placed in the recruitment process on what the organisation can offer the individual, not simply what the individual can offer the organisation. A strong employer brand is considered vital to stand out in the present competitive market, with some members going ‘back to the drawing board’ to identify what makes their university unique. Beyond identifying the core values of the institution, ensuring these are enacted in practice is the next challenge, with some reporting a high 12-month turnover as a result of a failure to live up to the EVP. Within a segmented market, a further challenge identified by the group is how to tailor the EVPs given the motivations of different talent groups and the challenges created by the reactive recruiting approach highlighted above.

Three actions to address these challenges

Action 1: Adopt a clear process for role design:

The reactive approach to recruiting based on highly specific local needs, described earlier, leads to a high proportion of professional service roles being resourced with generalists. Whilst some roles will always need this, many benefit from a greater degree of specialism. Some UniForum members, like the University of Auckland, have found that improving both the attraction and retention of talent to professional services roles requires a more conscious approach to the design of roles across the university. These conscious design approaches lead to a clearer distinction between roles that support services that are more routine by nature and benefit from robust processes and systems support and other roles that support services requiring bespoke responses with each interaction. More conscious role design leads to a clearer understanding of what competencies are needed to be successful in the role, what professional development may be needed to help someone progress and which career paths can be offered to someone in the role.

Workforce profile data, such as is available through the UniForum program, provides members with robust information on every role in the university and how that role time is broken down across the services the role is expected to support. Such role level data is instrumental in helping universities understand where role redesign will have the greatest benefit.

Action 2: Design service roles based on service user needs

To guide the design of the roles necessary to support an effective service, some understanding is needed of what matters most to the users of that specific service type. Such data helps define how critical it is to a user that the service offering has a clear process that delivers consistent results each time versus a service offering where it is more important to have confidence that the person delivering the service will understand the complex local needs and will respond appropriately to the different needs. Each service type within a university requires different competencies and very different skills from the person filling the role. Designing roles with these user insights helps recruiting teams in their search for candidates with experience critical to the role and to compete more effectively with the commercial sector. Filling these roles with the right person is key to building a service excellence-oriented team supporting the different service types. A service effectiveness and user experience assessment, such as the one available from NousCubane, provides this type of data.

Action 3: Ensure your recruiting team is fit for the task

Another finding coming from such data is what is required for a highly effective staff recruitment service. The service attribute most important to the users of staff recruitment services is that the processes and systems supporting the recruiting, reappointment or redeployment services are effective and efficient. As shown below in Figure 2, with an Impact Score of 5.1, improving the user’s experience of this attribute is going to have a far greater impact on their satisfaction with the service than improving the user’s experience of the other attributes with lower Impact Scores.

Unfortunately, when looking at service user experience ratings across the sector, this is one area where universities are falling short. Universities are doing well deploying personnel who have the knowledge required, are responsive to requests for help and understand the service users’ needs but are failing on the most critical attribute, providing an effective and efficient process to support recruitment. Improving this is key to a university winning in the competition for talent.

Figure 2. Impact Score and Median User Experience Rating of key service attributes for Staff Recruitment amongst UniForum group

If you would like to discuss this recruitment-focused UniForum insight in more detail or learn more about our global benchmarking membership and service effectiveness solutions, please send us an email.

This article was written by Holly Cameron, Senior Consultant, ANZ and James Catts, Managing Director, ANZ.