The Big Turnover: Insights into the Great Resignation and Higher Ed

  • December 23, 2021
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Much like the many college students rethinking their first-year experience and choosing to put college on pause, the labor sector has had their own troubles with high attrition rates this year. Dubbed the Great Resignation or Turnover Tsunami by the media, 2021 has had record high numbers of employee turnover. Office workers have been quitting their jobs at unusually high rates and leaving important positions open, with the peak of resignations happening in April and staying high throughout the summer.  The type of employee driving this trend is the main reason it is so impactful since the majority of resignations are amongst those with mid-level mid-career positions.  

According to Harvard Business Review, the age group with the largest increase to their turnover rate are employees from the ages of 30 to 45, “with an average increase of more than 20% between 2020 and 2021”. Normally turnover is higher in older age groups or amongst younger employees trying to make their way up the ladder, so it’s significant that the 30-45 age group is the demographic with the most resignations. Not only would we expect more stability in this area, but these employees are more skilled, being further along in their career, meaning that companies and schools have the difficult task of attracting and hiring new talent to keep their businesses functioning.   

Harvard Business Review noticed another trend, “In general, we found that resignation rates were higher among employees who worked in fields that had experienced extreme increases in demand due to the pandemic, likely leading to increased workloads and burnout.”  

It’s no surprise that Higher Ed is one of those fields due to the amount of stress adapting to the pandemic caused.  

What does this mean for Higher Ed? 

Given the age group, people with more experience who have been in their jobs for longer are the ones leaving. Mid-career employees are much harder to replace because of their specialization. With this big turnover, a lot of departments are finding that their decision-makers are missing, halting important transitions. Someone in a new position isn’t inclined to make big changes, even if those changes need to happen, which slows down a school’s ability to continue to adapt to the evolving landscape of education.  

What is driving this trend in Higher Ed? 

Burnout seems to be a big factor. According to Higher Ed HR Magazine, Higher Education already had a high attrition rate before Covid-19 with an average turnover of 3 years for positions like academic advisor and student counselor. The changes that Higher Ed had to go through during the pandemic put a lot of stress on both faculty and admin; many people are finding that the energy they used to pull through was not sustainable. Many are reaching a point of exhaustion and are deciding to look elsewhere. With the future looking less uncertain, folks are choosing to look for jobs that better suit their needs.  

To be clear, this is a system wide issue, not a personal one. In many ways, this wave of turnovers is an aftershock of the pandemic, something that would logically come after a time of so much pressure. The best thing for schools to do is to look at the ways they can adapt to prevent turnover and reduce burnout amongst employees. Adaptation and a preemptive approach will save a school money and time down the line, helping them keep pace with the changing times.  

Higher Ed HR Magazine said this: 

Returning to “business as usual” is not the strategy that will help us recruit, retain and engage talented colleagues who could be whisked away by the corporate sector, another college or university, or other local employers that adopt more forward-thinking approaches to work and commitment to their employees. 

What can Higher Ed Institutions do? 

The best thing to do is to take a preventative approach. By identifying and addressing areas of stress and frustration, schools can reduce turnover and retain the talent that they have.  

In their article, Bloomberg News explored how employees feel about transitioning back to the office, citing the change back to in person as being a source of frustration for many. While single folks and empty-nesters appreciate the social aspect of the office, employees with young kids and long commutes worry about the toll transitioning would take – having to rearrange childcare, endure long drives or crowded public transit, and the costs associated with these accommodations when an easier option exists. Bloomberg News suggests a hybrid model, balancing days in the office and remote work to obtain the benefits of both.  

Another source of frustration is workload. Looking for ways to automate office procedures, training, and admin tasks would reduce needless busy work, letting employees focus of more important tasks. This could be online training systems, placement test software, automatic reminders to students, or an upgraded version of virtual orientation that runs on its own. Anything that makes student onboarding simpler or moves student services online would be helpful. In general, rethinking tasks and ways to work “smarter, not harder” is going to be the direction institutions need to go.  

Higher Ed HR Magazine said this: 

Work from home opportunities during the last year have forced higher education to catch up to the corporate world in many aspects, including increased flexibility, better and more creative use of technology and enhanced agility regarding decision-making and responsiveness to the changing world around us. 

The truth is, now is the time for calculated measured adaption- for rethinking the ways of not just how we learn but how we approach work. Investment in employees now will pay off in the long run and will help institutions keep pace with the times.