How to enhance recruitment and retention at your university

Gareth Morris and Junhua Mo outline ways to address the twin critical factors of motivation for new employment and boosting job satisfaction


4 Jul 2023
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In 2019, the UK Department for Education released its strategy for recruiting and retaining teachers in the state-funded school sector. Priority areas that were identified included creating the right climate for leaders to establish supportive cultures, with an increased emphasis on accountability and system simplification. The second target area was to transform support for early career professionals through the promotion of a research-informed framework and incentivised (monetary) initiatives. The third priority area involved enabling educators to build attractive, sustainable careers and lives with specialist qualifications and clear non-leadership pathways available. The final focal area was making teaching more accessible and straightforward to enter.

All these approaches resonate with higher education recruitment and retention, too, because all practitioners would ideally like to enter a supportive system as painlessly as possible and then be able to grow and improve within it. The challenge within the university sector as far as recruitment and retention is concerned is that there are numerous, multifaceted layers that are all influential and intertwined. Global mobility, national regulatory compliances, shifts in demographics, divergent operating models and institutional nuances are just some of these influential factors. In addition, the breadth of qualifications, experience and skills sought are also more demanding, as universities now operate in a more customer-focused environment. Overcoming challenges such as these necessitates a variety of considerations to be addressed.

Enhancing recruitment by addressing employment motivation

Area 1: Employment concerns

The first area that needs to be considered relates to the terms of employment and associated package. Employees should reasonably expect clearly defined roles and remits, as well as competitive employment packages. Remuneration will extend beyond pay and be related to the overall package, and may include aspects such as medical insurance, accommodation cover, travel allowance, educational provision and social insurance. Employees will probably also consider the employer’s reputation by searching for testimonials from past and present staff. A competitive package from a reputable, people-centred provider is important.

Area 2: Personal considerations

The second consideration features life beyond work. Family, friendships, social and support groups, alongside existing commitments in the form of mortgage considerations, schooling and healthcare might well be influential. In this respect, if the intention is to attract the best-quality staff, institutions will need plenty of attractive pull factors.

Pull factors might include improved compensation and benefits, more professional growth opportunities, a better fit with working interests or goals, a desirable institutional working culture, the ability to better meet family responsibilities or simply to manage a better work-life balance and/or a more desirable location.

Area 3: Convenience

Another broad area of consideration when weighing up whether to apply for a new post, or make the move, is the ease with which it can be done. Application processes can be protracted affairs, because even after a candidate is successful lots of additional paperwork might need to be completed. Moving overseas is also time and energy intensive. It might also be relatively expensive prior to potential reimbursement when onboarding.

Simplifying things as much as possible increases the probability of new staff arriving. To achieve this, employers ought to provide a list of all necessary documentation as early as possible, ensure that enough time is available in which to gather this, provide alternative options if, where and when needed, and provide supportive, knowledgeable and patient contact points. If costs are going to be high, then early access to reimbursement is also advantageous.

Enhancing retention through increasing job satisfaction

Factor 1: The employment package

As a potential predictor of job retention, satisfaction with the employment package is essential. Some of the most influential features in this area are the salary and pension – and, for those working overseas, healthcare provision, accommodation, schooling and flight allowances. The capacity for continued progression in some of these areas will also be important if future needs and expectations are to be met.

Factor 2: Work remit

Having a clearly defined position and role is also essential. Often, working roles can evolve over time and, when they do, it is important that staff who are expected to take on new positions actually want to if they extend beyond contractual stipulations. In these instances in which staff take on new roles it should be clearly outlined what is expected and how success is measured. Clear reporting relationships are also required to be effective, because some positions might include multiple reporting channels.

Factor 3: Personal interactions

This ties into the importance of being part of a supportive workplace. Even in contexts in which pressure is the norm, the importance of collegiality cannot be overestimated. By equal measure, environments that are known to value creativity, promote kindness and enable employees to enjoy and express themselves tap into some of the most important lessons for modern employers. To achieve this, employers need to remember that staff are not machines – they like effort to be acknowledged, need support and respond to autonomy, guidance, trust and empathy.

Factor 4: Career pathways

It is also important to focus on recognition and progression. Most people appreciate feeling valued and acknowledged and wish to see institutional loyalty rewarded. Ways in which career pathways can be enhanced include allowing staff to have professional goals that support institutional needs and initiatives, as well as being able to follow up on personal aspirations that might extend more prescriptive routes in unexpectedly beneficial ways.

Goals can also be Smart in orientation. Having mentors on hand who can guide staff is crucial and could be tied to professional development qualification (PDQ) initiatives while also helping employees learn more about career opportunities. Building experience and networks has additional benefits and, if the institution has clear upward trajectories for staff to follow, an internal sense of fulfilment should align with external measures of achievement and growth.

Factor 5: Home life

The final area, which is essential to consider but extremely difficult to mediate for as an employer, is the non-work-related environment. Home life inevitably influences and affects working life. Being mindful of this, considering the importance of balance and well-being and supporting staff when required can go a long way in supporting institutional retention initiatives, because most people appreciate being cared about. Ways in which employers can be supportive in this area include ensuring that there is a clear delineation between the professional and personal, encouraging staff to put work aside and relax, acknowledging that small add-on tasks all contribute to the grand scheme of things and accepting that circumstances vary and so will the level of support employees need at various points in time.

Gareth Morris is a senior tutor in English for academic purposes, Centre for English Language Education, at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

Junhua Mo is associate professor in the School of Foreign Languages at Soochow University, China.

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