Once framed as a pandemic-era trend, The Great Resignation is proving far less fleeting as employees continue to quit their jobs at record rates. In fact, a recent McKinsey study found that 40 percent of workers across industries plan to leave their jobs in 2022 — a figure that has not changed since 2021.
The student affairs space is no different. In preparation for a recent ACUI webinar on the topic, Victoria Culver Rice, campus life and leadership coordinator at Metropolitan Community College–Longview, surveyed a sample of new, mid-level, and student affairs professionals who have recently exited the industry to get perspective on what’s driving this fundamental shift in employee behavior.
Overwhelmingly, respondents cited high stress levels and toxic work environments/general low morale as their top two reasons for leaving. “So many times, we get bogged down with things we can’t control — budget size, salaries, staff positions available — so it’s an exciting challenge that the top two reasons people are leaving are under our control,” Culver Rice said.
Other reasons for leaving included unrealistic workloads, higher pay elsewhere, and lack of upward mobility. When answering open-ended questions, respondents also pointed to burnout, a lack of trust/transparency when it comes to politics, and not feeling valued as reasons for leaving.
Dwayne Isaacs, an ACUI Board of Trustees member and senior director of the Reitz Union at the University of Florida, said that in his experience, challenges with diversity, inclusion, values, and identity are also driving resignations. “People should not feel uncomfortable being their true, authentic selves in their workplaces in 2022,” he said.
What Not to Do
Culver Rice’s research revealed several best practices for retaining student union professionals moving forward. For one, she said, resist the urge to micromanage. “High-performing staff simply won’t tolerate it — and those are the people you need to move the organization forward,” she said.
She also recommended leaders advocate for their teams, altering excessively high expectations rather than pushing employees to achieve the impossible. Think systemically about how to improve the environment for employees, whether that means better pay, clear priorities, professional development, or additional staff, Culver Rice said.
Edna Zambrano-Martinez, student unions director at the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley and an ACUI Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Program team member, said bringing the HR department into the conversation is essential. “We may feel bound by HR compensation structures, but we need to get out of our offices and meet with HR leaders to advocate for our staff,” she said.
“Don’t say, ‘We need to do more with less,'” he said. “In reality, we must do what we can with what we have and be OK with that. Supervisors and senior leadership need to figure out how to communicate to all departments that we can’t be all things to all people. It’s a huge disservice if we don’t, especially when folks are resigning for these reasons.”
Another tip: Don’t catastrophize, said Culver Rice. “We, as higher ed professionals, can take our jobs too seriously and create high stakes environments where they aren’t necessary,” she said. “But the color of a T-shirt isn’t going to put someone in physical danger. We need to know when to pull back.”
A New Era of Recruitment and Retainment
Zambrano-Martinez said student union leaders need to change the way they talk about jobs in student affairs.
“We used to say, ‘It’s a fun, high-energy job, it’s fast-paced, students will keep you young.’ We’d say, “No day is the same, it’s great retirement, and it’s rewarding,'” she said. “But nobody is going to work for peanuts.”
Culver Rice added that the newer generations of student union professionals want clear expectations, inclusive work environments, and flexible work options. “Transparency is key,” she said. “Folks want to know what they’re getting into, why they’re doing it, and why they should be doing it.”
When it comes to retaining employees, Isaacs said to use resources within your control to keep staff engaged at all levels. “I’ve been thinking about how to thank my custodial and housekeeping staff, who are getting hammered,” he said. “The first thing that popped in my mind was, “What if I brought in some massage therapists; we do it for our students all the time. It’s about giving back in a meaningful, intentional way.”
It all comes down to getting to know your staff as well as you can, said Culver Rice. “What are their motivations, hopes, dreams, and goals? Try to put as many tools in their hands to help be successful in those areas,” she said.