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Research Report

Higher Ed’s Talent Imperative

What it takes to become an employer of choice

June 13, 2023

Key Insights

As college and university leaders chart a course for the decade ahead, they face ever-greater challenges and ever-higher strategic ambitions: intensified competition for students with heightened needs and expectations, transformations of both digital and physical campuses, and new demands to lead local and regional economic development. At each institution, the most important asset for achieving these and other critically important aims is talent. All too often the cabinet relegates questions about talent to unit leaders or HR functions. But how cabinet leaders decide to manage talent as an asset, or whether they opt to not manage it, will determine their institution’s ability to thrive.

Starting in the 1990s with the advent of the internet and job search engines, the overall workforce became more mobile, more fluid, and more demanding. Corporate employers not only responded with a new playbook for recruitment, retention, and engagement: they also seized the moment to transform HR from a transactional function to strategic partner.

The pandemic period from 2020 to 2022 represented another irreversible tectonic shift. For office workers, the widespread, mandatory adoption of remote and tech-enabled work arrangements untethered their connections to employers and coworkers. Even more broadly, the pandemic spurred many to grapple with existential questions about their life’s purpose and relationship to work. Hardly temporary blips, these shifts reflect enduring changes to a labor market unlikely to revert to pre-pandemic norms.

Now, in the wake of the Great Resignation, higher ed faces a greater number of competitors for talent. Demographic decline in the workforce, not just among high school graduates, means more competition for fewer people. With their talent management capabilities decades behind the competition, it won’t be enough for colleges and universities to simply play “catch-up.” Cabinet leadership and new investments are critically needed across multiple dimensions of talent strategy to become employers of choice and fulfill all aspects of the university mission.

This executive briefing focuses on the growing business imperative for higher ed institutions to manage their talent as a strategic asset. It outlines five critical dimensions of change that have reshaped the competitive landscape for talent and spurred progressive out-of-sector employers to transform their talent strategy:

  • Mindset: Every organization, including higher ed, is in the people business.
  • Investment: Talent is no longer just a cost center, but a strategic asset worthy of continuous investment and modern infrastructure.
  • Organization/Function: HR is no longer narrowly focused on transactions and compliance, evolving instead into a strategic business partner capable of driving data-informed decisions.
  • Job Market: Job-seekers and employers alike benefit from an increasingly fluid, often boundaryless job market.
  • Social Contract: Though employees no longer devote themselves to a single organization for decades, their expectations for personalized and fulfilling employment experiences are higher than ever.

Cabinet leadership teams can use this briefing to prioritize the table stakes investments their institutions must make to compete in today’s market and, ultimately, position themselves as attractive talent destinations.

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