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Business Officer Magazine

Higher Ed’s Hiring Outlook

Reports from and the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer depict slowed job growth this year, but a more hopeful view for FY10.

By Karla Hignite

If job availability showed an overall increase at colleges and universities during FY09, hiring of open positions appears to have stalled, according to data published in's third-quarter 2009 “Higher Education Employment Report.” The employment Web site has more than 1,000 institution subscribers, including approximately 700 “continuous subscriber” colleges and universities that have paid a flat annual fee for unlimited recruitment advertising since at least Jan. 1, 2006. Despite having no financial disincentive for multiple job postings, the actual number of advertised openings from continuous subscribers decreased 29 percent in the third quarter of 2009 from the previous year, but were up 7.9 percent from the previous quarter of 2009. A year earlier, they were up only 2 percent from the second quarter to the third quarter of 2008.

Another reflection of how the current higher education employment market may be changing is a dramatic increase in the number of part-time jobs advertised. From 2004 to 2007, approximately 8 percent of the site's postings were for part-time positions. At around the start of the recession in 2008, that percentage stood at 9.7 percent. For the first nine months of 2009, the average percentage was 10.9 percent, after reaching an all-time high of 14.7 percent by July 2009. Also on the upswing: the percentage of advertised jobs from community colleges, inching up from 19.9 percent during the first half of 2008 to 20.9 percent in the first half of 2009.

Presidential predictions. In compiling its April 2009 report, “Presidents and Chancellors React to Economic Impact on Higher Education,” executive search firm Witt/Kieffer surveyed more than 1,500 college and university presidents and chancellors during the height of the recession in February 2009 to assess their reactions to the current economic crisis.

Among the key findings of nearly one year ago:

  • Primary actions taken in response to the downturn included 68 percent saying they were seeking reductions to the next year's (FY10) budget, followed by 64 percent seeking reductions in the current year's (FY09) budget, as well as imposing salary constraints (56 percent) and capital project delays (49 percent).
  • More than half (55 percent) reported freezing staff hiring, compared to 35 percent who reported freezes on faculty hiring.
  • In looking ahead to FY10, 55 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that faculty hiring would resume by June 2010, compared to 42 percent who thought this would be the case for nonfaculty hiring.
  • When asked how they approached filling senior administrative positions prior to the downturn, 33 percent indicated they would frequently fill a vacancy by naming an interim, versus 24 percent who would promote from within, and 13 percent who would delay filling the position to alleviate budget shortfalls. Since the crisis, 43 percent are most likely to fill positions with an interim, compared with 30 percent who would promote from within, and 47 percent who would delay filling the position.

Behind the numbers. On that final point, while the sharp rise in the number who report delays in filling open positions likely reflects the hiring freezes in place at many institutions, the shift toward naming an interim or promoting from within could in part reflect an underlying difficulty with getting candidates to relocate, says Jane Courson, a consultant with Witt/Kieffer. “That seems plausible given a real estate market in which many have been unable to sell their homes or would have to take a significant loss to do so. Institutions are obviously aware of this in their recruiting efforts.”

At the time the report was published, no one knew how fall 2009 enrollments would affect revenues. Staffing was therefore one of the easiest and most immediate ways for institutions to control costs. What was a bit unusual about this recession was the fact that faculty hiring was also frozen early on, notes Courson. “While it's not unusual for higher education to look for reductions on the administrative side, leaders are reluctant to take steps that will have a direct impact on students or mission, so faculty and academic programming are often spared.” The fact that across-the-board hiring freezes were implemented indicates the severity of the situation and the extent to which institution leaders felt the need to curtail spending, concludes Courson.

In determining their specific approach surrounding cutbacks, those with whom Courson spoke at the time of the survey indicated they were making prudent and conscientious efforts to preserve as many jobs as possible. In more recent conversations with senior administrators, there is a sense that the cuts made last year were deep enough and fall enrollment figures were strong enough that many are not anticipating big budget gaps this year, notes Courson. That said, few are certain that their situation will be sound enough to reinstate salary increases, nor can they say with certainty when full hiring may resume. “I think leaders are cautiously optimistic. They see hopeful signs that the economy is improving, and most feel the situation has stabilized. However, they are monitoring their budgets carefully and paying close attention to enrollments.”

KARLA HIGNITE, Kaiserslautern, Germany, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

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