Upskilling higher education: University staff need professional development too

I left my last job in higher education because I saw no professional path forward. When I looked at my options for professional development I saw a future with no chance to upgrade my skills.

Despite loving my job, the students, and my talented colleagues, I left my job in pursuit of new challenges.

I hear from many talented people in higher education who are curious about leaving. They feel torn. They love the work but worry about their professional futures. They don’t see a path forward. They have ambivalent managers. They also don’t know how to leave.

I hear this from others outside the higher ed too. These are common complaints in my generation:

My job doesn’t offer any opportunity to learn anything new.

My job doesn’t challenge me.

My manager has no idea how to help me.

The data shows that higher education staff want to upskill

While I’ve been collecting anecdotes from higher education staff, the researchers at Academic Impressions have been collecting quantitative data. In the report, Beating Turnover in Higher Ed,Academic Impressions surveyed 2,577 higher education professionals.

Among their top findings: people in higher education leave because they’re not provided with professional development opportunities.

The numbers are rather shocking, even for someone who is used to hearing from people asking how to leave higher education:

Those numbers are striking. 86% of higher education staff said they had “no formal, written plan with clear objectives for their professional development.”

The survey also found that “88% note that professional development is “extremely important” to them.”

Let those number sink in. Nearly the entire group surveyed has no plan for professional development, yet the majority say professional development is in incredibly important.

Translation: higher ed leadership is failing their employees.

Upkilling is professional development

Upskilling is the process of learning and applying new skills to improve your professional life. While it’s a term synonymous with the future of work, it needs to be embraced in the present. Upskilling is simply professional development rebranded with urgency.

We’re living in a time where headlines are shouting about robots taking their job (side note: they’re not but new technology is shifting how we work). Staff know that wages are stagnant and emerging jobs (i.e the good paying jobs) increasingly require a hybrid skill set. They’re paying attention to the discussions within the industry about the value of a college degree. They deserve professional development opportunities that allow them to keep pace with their peers outside of higher education.

Higher education staff need professional development that ensures they have the right skills to succeed in our changing world of work. They also need to keep their skills current to ensure they can connect with newer generations and adapt to a lifelong learning career model.

If higher education staff don’t have access to professional development opportunities now, they may find themselves out-skilled in the open job market in the near future.

Higher education leadership is missing the memo on upskilling

So what’s going on? Well, as the report shows, there’s a disconnect between how leadership thinks they’re doing and how staff perceive they’re doing. The results from Academic Impression’s infographic show that higher education leadership thinks they’re doing a better job at professional development than they’re actually doing:

The results of these questions point to a bigger problem: a lack of shared definition for professional development. Professional development isn’t just offering a few online courses or taking a workshop. As the report notes, employees need opportunities to apply what they learn. And that’s where a large disconnect is happening.

I don’t actually know what professional development looks like in higher education, despite working in two different roles at universities. Based on my experience, it looks like attending and presenting at national conferences, both of which I did.

While they’re great for connecting like-minded people, conferences aren’t exactly model learning experiences (and they can be absurdly expensive/prohibitive for departments on tight budgets). Some offer good learning experiences, while others feel like they’re simply vehicles for vendors and parties. If they provide good learning experiences, employees need opportunities to share and apply what they learn back in their place of work.

It’s not enough to listen to a talk on how to write better. Employees need opportunities to apply that new skill in the context of their daily work. Employees need managers who are ok with a little risk in order to create that space to apply those new skills. They need leadership who think beyond silos and build opportunities that employees from different skills and backgrounds to collaborate.

It’s so common in higher education to talk about breaking down silos. But in order for higher education staff to learn and apply new skills, that’s exactly what needs to happen. Managers need to create projects across job families. And if managers already think they’re doing a good job of this, then it’s going to be quite an uphill battle for staff to get them to do better.

Professional development is a personalized journey

Upskilling is not a one size fits all approach. In a single department, there will be some employees who have multiple skills but might be tapping into all of them. There are others who have few skills and need additional training to get up to speed. There are also others who don’t want to learn and simply prefer autopilot. Leadership needs to understand what type of training fits each team member best. They also must avoid assume that everyone wants training.

Leadership needs to connect with all of these employees to understand their learning needs. That may be what makes it so hard for managers to engage with their direct reports on the issue. Managers aren’t hired specifically for their interpersonal skills or teaching/mentorship capabilities, so some managers might find they have a steeper learning curve when it comes to understanding their direct reports’ learning needs.

Building a learning culture in higher education organizations

Most interestingly, the survey found that 1 in 3 departments don’t have a culture supportive of learning and growth. The irony of all this is, of course, is that higher education institutions are learning organizations!

How can an institution of learning neglect it’s own learning and development for staff?

Part of the issue is that higher education leaders still operate in a career ladder mindset. It’s the mindset that says that once we’ve graduated college, employee just pick a path and stay on it, no more education needed.

This is, of course, no longer the case, thanks to new technology and changing employee expectations. And here’s where I trot out my favorite quote on the subject:

Our careers are no longer linear. We are more mobile, changing jobs and careers at a faster pace than previous generations. We learn from different sources and we need to keep learning beyond our college degrees. We are expected to adapt and change. In turn, we expect leadership to do the same.

The report ends with takeaways meant to help build learning cultures. Among them are recommendations that leaders have conversations with direct reports about learning needs, document clear learning paths, and create incentives to support professional development.

I agree with all of them and will add two more. First, higher education leaders needs to get out of the career ladder mindset. They need to think of their employees as agile workers who many not be striving for the next rung on the ladder. They need to think about new ways of working that help workers build new skills – collaborative projects that span departments, remote work, new job families that require hybrid skills.

Second, higher education leaders need to keep learning and experimenting within their own careers. They need to adapt a learning mindset, one that prioritizes learning and growth for themselves so they can do the same their team. In short, they need to upskill too.

Going forward, I want tosee higher education celebrate the leaders who foster learning and development on their own teams. I’m looking for stories about higher education leaders who show us how they learn and develop new skills. I want all leaders in higher education to develop their own personal learning syllabus at the start of their year and model their upskilling process for their team. (and honestly I think that’d make for some fabulous content for marketing)

Building learning cultures means adapting a learning mindset, one of curiosity and growth. This shouldn’t be too hard of an ask in organizations built to foster such a mindset.

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