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Solving the Talent Shortage in Career Services: Leadership for Organizational Effectiveness

There’s a leadership shortage in higher education and career services departments are not immune to this shortage. Though we spend countless hours talking about the need for talented, innovative, change agents, it appears little is being done to actually identify, hire and retain these superstars. How can career services do their part to change this?

A basic search on yields hundreds of vacant leadership positions across the US. Today alone, I counted over 800 executive openings, over 23K administrative vacancies, and another nearly 19K faculty opportunities. Yes, the economy is bright, yes colleges and universities are growing in service need, and yes, it is higher ed’s peak hiring season. Yet, these are not the only reasons why competition for top talent is fierce and nowhere to be found.

So, what are the reasons?

Some of this has to do with the talent challenges impacting all industries, including career services. Challenges such as the dual responsibilities many professionals now face in caring for both children and aging family members. Now that the economy has rebounded and confidence is high, we also have experienced leaders with long tenure retiring. These uncontrollable natural change factors are part of the 21st century workplace realities, and career services feels these realities right alongside many other industries.

But there are other factors in play we have control over. Factors we can change. And they all point to leadership development.

The good news is that since career services remains at the forefront of a college’s ROI, our argument for leadership development support is strong.

Over the past decade or so, the scope of job duties in most, if not all senior leadership positions across career services have ballooned. When I started as a leader in the field, my primary day-to-day responsibility included … hold your breath … career coaching! Now it is fundraising, meetings, event attendance, meetings, admissions recruiting, meetings, employer outreach, and wait, did I mention meetings? This is on top of the need to remain knowledgeable of best practices in the field; learning and adopting innovative ways to meet our constituents’ needs; and collecting and analyzing data trends so we can spend the summer strategizing how we are going to do more with less and deliver better services in the fall. Did you notice, I didn’t even mention career coaching?

Manny Contomanolis, Christine Cruzvergara, Farouk Dey, and Trudy Steinfeld capture this well in their 2015 article, The Future of Career Services is Now,

“For leaders of career services today, the primary role is no longer just running the operation. It is also about being externally focused, visionary leaders who can engage and connect with stakeholders, provide thought leadership concerning the efforts of their organizations, and connect the activities and outcomes of our work to institutional priorities, goals, and mission. Leadership in career services today requires individuals who are highly effective communicators who can build momentum and foster buy-in for needed strategic initiatives.”

Fortunately, we have identified what we need, and our industry has evolved in many necessary ways, and to be at the forefront of these conversations has been exciting and educational. Yet, we are at a crucial junction with leadership shortages, and as career service professionals, we must advocate for career services and higher education as an industry to

  1. Identify competent leaders

  2. Deliver the support these leaders need to actually do their new jobs well.

I’ve found people inherently want to do a good job and feel good about their contribution. This can’t happen if there are unnecessary barriers present. Leaders leave when they aren’t given the support they need to succeed - and new one’s don’t materialize for the very same reason. Many internal employees with leadership potential realize the best way to advance – and be compensated for - their leadership skills is to leave their current institution. And for institutions short on talent, this hurts students, staff, and succession planning, not to mention immediate growth and stabilization needed in this rapidly changing landscape.