Glance at The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, or the Forum’s State of the Field Report, and it’s easy to discern that higher education has an employment crisis. Staffing is down, and workloads are increasing. Already low salaries aren’t keeping pace with inflation. Many institutions cut benefits during the pandemic that they have yet to fully restore. Far too many leaders spend their days trying to return to pre-COVID times or arguing that we already have. Most are ignoring that higher ed employment is undergoing a major shift, and no, it’s not the fault of COVID. COVID merely accelerated changes that were already occurring.
The priorities and values of Gen Z are different than preceding generations, and they’re driving a lot of the change. Colleges and universities need Gen Z to fill entry-level positions. Entry-level positions require conformity and adaptation to rigid systems and processes. Universities demand loyalty and sacrifice. They rely on altruism and a belief in the greater good, and most university leaders are comfortable with this approach because it’s the system in which they rose through the ranks.
Enter Gen Z. Gen Z prioritizes humans and self-care. These are great values – unless you work in an organization that survives on its employees’ goodwill (aka, backs). Gen Z prioritizes justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Universities talk a decent JEDI game – just don’t take a deep look at employment practices. Gen Z values resourcefulness and independence. Institutions demand entry-level employees that do what they’re told and don’t rock the boat. Gen Z values flexibility. Colleges and universities are some of the most intractable and obstinate organizations on the planet. Gen Z values professional growth and development. These go at the hint of financial instability, and few advancement pathways exist unless one is willing to change institutions. Gen Z values good remuneration. Higher ed – well, if you’re reading this, probably enough said.
If an organization is having trouble filling positions or retaining employees – especially entry-level ones, it’s time to evaluate its culture. Does it support Gen Z’s values? The bottom line is that employment culture is changing. As a geriatric millennial, I had a front-row seat to the development of Internet culture, which prompted huge organizational changes. History is replete with similar examples. It’s not about giving Gen Z everything it wants. It is about whether to adapt or submit because higher ed needs Gen Z to survive, and Gen Z’s not gonna put up with this.
So what’s a university leader to do? First, converse. Cultivate intentional conversations with your team. What are their needs? What are their expectations? What makes them feel valued? Leadership at any level requires knowing those you lead, and communication is the tool for that. Second, advocate. Push for better and more flexible conditions and be transparent about it. Expect to be told no (maybe a lot), but change occurs only when leaders advocate for it. Finally, develop. Create growth opportunities for those you lead. Leaders who value their teams find ways (even low- or no-cost ways) to promote professional development. What can you do internally to support your team? How can team members support each other? While these won’t immediately resolve the challenges higher ed currently faces, they will position leaders to demonstrate they value Gen Z and the contributions Gen Z can make to higher education.