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Higher education IT recruiting: Small changes that make a big difference

September 29, 2016 | By Dan Cagle

higher education pair sits outside on a bench with laptop

If you’re struggling to attract qualified IT workers—and worried you can’t compete in the compensation race—you’re not alone. Higher education IT institutions often struggle to recruit IT talent, and the problem is getting worse as the labor market tightens and salaries across the board rise.

To get the IT talent you need, you may have to throw out the old ways of doing things. I’ve seen a lot of higher education institutions struggling to attract more qualified candidates, and have developed and tested recruiting strategies to see which ones work and fail. Here’s what I’ve learned.  

Use your secret sourcing weapon

How do you attract the attention of well-qualified IT pros? Good IT workers hardly have to look for jobs; everywhere they turn, they’re pursued by opportunities. They’re certainly not scouring your website’s job page every week. 

While you may not be able to compete on salary, you have something most organizations lack: a large and loyal alumni base. IT pros with a connection to your school are a lot more likely to take your recruiter’s call—and even if they’re not interested in the position, they’re likely to help you out by referring their friends who may be looking.

One great way to take advantage of this willingness is to cross-reference a database of skilled job seekers with former students (don’t overlook non-alumni, such as students who transferred). This tactic works especially well with institutions with a passionate alumni base.  

Workforce planning: a new strategy for filling your skills gap

The good news is the demand for IT services within higher ed is increasing. The bad news is your budget probably doesn’t reflect that. Universities and other institutions are scrambling to reconfigure and reap efficiencies in the way they operate, while helping drive some exciting projects that truly impact the student experience and learning models—and your skill needs are changing rapidly.

To navigate this new terrain, some higher ed IT departments are using a suite of tactics they’ve eschewed in the past. Traditionally, higher education organizations have used permanent employees almost exclusively. Given the high cost of benefits packages as well as the changing nature of IT—not to mention the rarity of in-demand skill sets—this model isn’t right for every situation.

With an average 70-day timeframe for filling IT positions, flexible workforce planning might be needed to address your skills gap and prepare you for shifts in resources. Many initiatives are best served by a mix of contractors, consultants and long-term staff. Ask yourself these questions when determining whether contractors, contract-to-hire or permanent staff best meet your needs:

  • Am I implementing a technology where my organization has little to no domain expertise?
  • Can I quickly assemble and disassemble teams with the right skills to deploy new initiatives?
  • Under my current project timeline, do I have more work than my existing staff can deliver?
  • Is the length of time it takes to fill positions impacting my ability to support key initiatives?

Succeed by convincing IT pros to care about your mission

For two critical reasons, IT professionals care deeply about technology innovation. First, they love learning about and tinkering with new technologies. Second, while IT workers are complacent about there being enough jobs, they’re not complacent about their own skills. Many an IT pro’s biggest fear is she’ll blink and her skills will have become obsolete. 

A simple way to overcome one of your biggest recruiting hurdles is to craft job descriptions and other recruiting messages to showcase your technology innovation. After all, higher ed institutions are early adopters of many technologies, such as software-defined networking. Focus your job ad copy on the chances for IT pros to learn about and participate in new tech, and you’ll increase your chances of getting more and better candidates.

Your ed tech endeavors are also appealing to many IT professionals, who want to feel like they impact an organization’s underlying mission. Include language in your job ads about the opportunity to drive educational innovation through technology. If you're working with a recruiting partner, make sure they take the time to understand your culture and mission so they can message it correctly to candidates.

Optimize your assets: benefits and pace

Wring every last drop out of your benefits—tangible and intangible—for IT pros:

  • A lot of IT pros work as freelancers or contractors, so your health and retirement benefits are likely to be a big draw for this population
  • Conversely, many full-time IT pros feel overworked because of the 24/7 expectations of many IT positions, so tout the more predictable, 9-5 nature of higher education IT
  • Don’t forget to call out your tech stack and academic mission
  • Highlight any free education or tuition reimbursement your institution provides for workers and dependents

Attending EDUCAUSE 2016? I’d love to discuss your workforce planning and recruiting strategies. Visit me at Booth 1259 or connect with me on LinkedIn to set up a call or meeting.

As the national sales director for higher education IT recruiting and services at TEKsystems, Dan Cagle leads 90 account managers. He has spent more than nine years developing strategies to help colleges and universities solve their most difficult technology problems, particularly attracting and retaining IT staff. 

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