7 Ways To Handle The Higher Ed Labor Shortage

Can you see into the future?

Obviously, no. But the planning part of your job still requires that you try.

Predicting what will happen in the near-term and in the long-term is tough enough, made worse now that the higher education landscape seems to have become mostly shifting sand these days. Switching from in-person learning to distance or virtual learning, and back again, has become as common as flipping a light switch. 

But you still have to figure out how to modify staffing and operations to adjust to the changes while still meeting expectations. And did we mention, you have to do it in the midst of a labor shortage?

That’s a lot of impossibility you have to deal with. External forces way outside of your control are putting some extreme pressure on you. It’s important to understand how higher ed is being impacted before you can see how to deal with it.

How labor shortages affect higher ed

No industry is exempt from the strain the labor shortage is having on the workforce, including higher education. 

In fact, the education sector has among the highest number of job openings. While that sector is broadly defined and encompasses more than just higher ed, it’s definitely feeding into that number, particularly considering how jobs on campus are traditionally filled.

Student workers, in particular, are a huge component, including international students who have been absent since COVID hit. Jobs often filled by students through part-time work have remained unfilled due to campus closures and in-person restrictions in the 2020-2021 school year. Work-study, a critical piece of the financial aid package for many students, as well as universities relying on those workers, has also seen a significant shift and reduction when extensive online learning came into play.

Beyond student workers, other employees are hard to come by, too. Maintenance crews, kitchen workers, and office help are being gobbled up by other businesses.

All of this is particularly challenging for higher ed because you’re dealing with incredibly varied operational demands. Some jobs, such as admissions or financial aid, still need workers whether or not students are on campus. For in-person situations, short-staffed dining halls mean students are waiting in long lines for food.

Whether it’s classroom, cafeteria, security, maintenance, or office staff, the labor shortage is impacting every aspect of higher education.

Mitigating labor shortage challenges in higher ed

You can’t take a magic pill and wake up in a world where there’s no labor shortage. The challenges aren’t going to disappear. But there are a few things you can do to survive, and even thrive, until things get back to normal.

In fact, some of these fixes will be something you’ll want to keep around for good.

1. Labor sharing

Labor sharing is simply sharing qualified staff between departments to get shifts covered. 

Some departments may be more understaffed than others, and there are employees who have the skills and experience that overlap in areas outside of their department. When I Work built labor sharing into the system so you can easily manage moving eligible employees from one department’s schedule to another. 

Combined with flexible scheduling (see below), labor sharing can be a benefit for employees, allowing them to claim open shifts that interest them. Labor sharing spreads the workload, reduces overload, and breaks up monotony for employees interested in trying something new.

2. Flexible scheduling

Flexible scheduling is how, even in a labor shortage, your employees get their life back.

For those tasked with creating shift schedules, it also makes life easier. Scheduling managers create and define shifts, but they don’t have to plan it in detail. Employees select shifts they want or are qualified for, based on those shift definitions. 

Think of it as self scheduling. Instead of burnout and overworked employees (which ends up being the default state in a labor shortage), your consistent workers get the shifts they prefer and have a sense of control of their life.

3. Temp workers

Don’t write off temporary workers.

There are some vital roles that you simply can’t leave open indefinitely. Operations won’t function for very long without someone in place. These are the jobs that have a domino effect on everyone else if they remain open. For those positions, consider temporary workers, or even independent contractors if the position is appropriate. Even part-time workers might be a solution despite the full-time openings.

It’s a triage mentality where you have to keep things running until you find the full-time employee you want.

4. Increase pay

When you work more, you should get paid more.

What usually happens in a labor shortage is the other employees are expected to pick up the slack. They may do so willingly and with excellent work, but it’s not exactly fair to them if you don’t increase their pay.

Employees who go above and beyond their job description to help you out should be paid more. It helps offset the extra stress and workload. Burnout is one of those things that happen not only from more work, but also from feeling like your extra effort isn’t noticed. Paying more answers that, and while it won’t always prevent long-term burnout, it certainly gives you more leeway to find the workers you need.

5. Attract new workers

Tight labor markets mean you’re competing against others vying for the same talent.

One of the best ways to overcome a labor shortage is to be extremely competitive in compensation and benefits.

This doesn’t only mean money, although an increase in pay and things like health benefits may be part of it. Just don’t limit your idea of what benefits are. 

Remember, benefits are anything that add value to employees’ lives. That means offering options like flexible scheduling, on-demand pay, and paid time off go a long way in setting you apart from other employers. Those are all benefits that don’t eat away at your bottom line and attract workers who want a better work-life balance.

6. Lead with empathy

Absolutely everyone has been impacted by the labor shortage, at every level. Hiring managers, scheduling managers, and the workers themselves are all bearing some kind of burden from the trickle down effects of being short staffed.

You have to lead with empathy. You have to be understanding of other people.

Keep that in mind as you bring back former employees after COVID-19. Not everyone will respond the same, or have the same fear or confidence levels. 

Work hard at communicating with employees, which also includes listening. They may feel the burden of being overworked much sooner than you realize, so take employee communication seriously. Be purposeful and mindful when communicating with your team.

Communication styles, work preferences, personal lives, and cultural differences are all at work. If it all seems too complicated, your fallback is simple: care about other people, treating them as you’d like to be treated.

7. Use the right tools

Start thinking about the tools you use as an investment. They’re not just ways to get things done, but they are an investment in your process and your people.

Tools like When I Work create flexibility in how you manage and plan your employee schedule, and that means that neither predictable or sudden change has a damaging impact. You can adjust more quickly, with less stress on your people, through apps and software that:

  • Is available on mobile devices where employees are already managing their lives
  • Makes self scheduling, shift management, and shift swapping easy
  • Improves employee and manager communication by bringing it into the app itself 
  • Includes a time clock app that integrates with payroll, reducing the need for tools or employees to handle data entry
  • Partners with Clair to offer employees on-demand pay

It’s easy to get lost in the drama that a labor shortage brings. Remember that the right tools, like the kind of scheduling software you use, can be an answer. If you’re too busy counting all the employees you don’t have, and your scheduling solution doesn’t make any other activity an option, you’re not using the right tools.

The right tools require fewer people to use, reduce the time you spend on tasks, and make life easier for employees. All of these are must-haves during a labor shortage.

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