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Let’s Discuss the CUPA-HR 2023 Higher Education Employee Retention Survey



This week in the Supervisor Strengths Institute, we’re talking about coaching. Over the weekend, I was working on a conference session on how to retain your best employees. I started by pulling data from the CUPA-HR 2023 Higher Education Employee Retention Survey. So, this week, I wanted to pull out some key takeaways from that survey and talk about why coaching is so integral to retaining your team.


If you’ve been working in Higher Education for a while, you’ve probably noticed folks are leaving and it’s getting more and more challenging to replace them. That is IF you’re lucky enough to be able to replace them. This is obviously a worrying trend, so naturally folks want to know why. Thus, organizations like CUPA-HR are trying to get to the bottom of it. On one hand, I want to say kudos to the folks who are finally asking the right questions. But on the other hand, I don’t think it was ever a mystery if you’re paying attention. But as you’ll see, that’s part of the problem. People are so busy putting out fires, they’re not paying attention to how their people feel and what they need. So, let’s dig into the CUPA-HR survey. We’ll talk about what the data says, what that means for you and your team, and how you can use coaching to help keep your folks from leaving.


Alrighty, let’s start with one of the most frightening questions. When participants were asked about the likelihood they would look for other opportunities within the next 12 months, 32.6% said they were very likely or likely to do so. And if you add on “somewhat likely” group, that jumps up to 56.2%. So best case scenario, a third of your team is likely to look for another job this year. But there’s a decent chance that over half will be looking. The good news is that many folks will stay because they’re too exhausted to launch a job search right now. Now, that was a joke, but it made me wonder whether the people who said they were unlikely to look for a job aren’t doing so because they simply don’t have the energy. That’s obviously a rather negative take on the situation. I do want to acknowledge that there are absolutely institutions and supervisors who are supportive of their employees. But I’ve just heard from so many folks who are overwhelmed, if not completely burned out. Some of them are desperately hoping things change because at the core they love their job and their students, but regardless, these numbers indicate there’s a huge problem in Higher Ed.


So, let’s look at the why. CUPA-HR asked participants to rank their top three reasons they’re thinking about seeking new opportunities. The biggest reason at 86% was because of pay/salary increase. The second biggest reason at 44.2% was the opportunity to work remotely. The third biggest reason was to get a promotion or more responsibility at 35.8%. There are some other reasons as well, but I want to spend most of our time focused on this first one, salary.


Now everyone would like more money, right? In most of Higher Ed, the salaries have not kept up with inflation. But that’s not really industry specific, so I want to dig into another issue “uncovered” by the CUPA-HR survey. And what’s that issue? You guessed it, too much work...

  • When participants were asked whether there was an increase in job expectations over the past year, 70.9% of supervisors and 61.1% of non-supervisors agreed or strongly agreed.

  • When participants were asked if they’d absorbed additional responsibilities of other staff who have left, 71% of supervisors and 56.3% of non-supervisors agreed or strongly agreed.

  • When participants were asked if it was normal to work on weekends, 38.3% of supervisors and 20.7% of non-supervisors agreed or strongly agreed.

  • And finally, 63.9% of supervisors and 34.6% of non-supervisors said they agreed or strongly agreed their job duties required extra time outside of their normal work hours.

So not only have most salaries not kept up with inflation, but folks are also being asked to do more work that often eats up time with their family and friends without being fairly compensated for it. Again, I don’t think you need to be a rocket surgeon to figure out that’s not a great situation.


At my last job on campus, an administrative assistant in the Business Office retired. She had done all the housing contracts while I’d been in my position, so like for 9 or 10 years. Well, when she retired, they decided not to replace her and guess what, now I was going to have to do them! When I talked to HR about financial compensation to match these new duties, I was told that when people start asking about additional compensation it usually means they’re on their way out. Now, I took this to mean that it would not look favorably on me to ask for more money and that I should be a team player and suck it up. It was a subtle way to get people to fall in line. But looking back, I realize what load of BLEEP that is. I wish I had felt more empowered at the time to push the issue. And if I may, now I realize what a scam being a salaried employee can be if you don’t have the right leadership in place.


That’s just one small example of how folks in Higher Ed are being overworked and underpaid for their efforts. I mean, I only had to take on part of her duties. I know many of you who have had to absorb entire jobs when someone left. And this doesn’t just impact people at work, it impacts their whole life. Let’s look at the results when CUPA-HR asked folks about their satisfaction with their Institutional environment. I’m not going to go through everything because well, who has the time. But let’s focus on the four areas that the most folks disagreed or strongly disagreed with...


  • 22.5% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they were satisfied that their “Institution Acts Ethically & Responsibly.” That is shocking for an institution that’s supposed to be helping shape ethical and responsible citizens. I wonder how much of that was impacted by the unethical and irresponsible workload being forced upon their employees.

  • 28.4% disagreed or strongly disagreed that their “Institution Cares About Well-Being.” Yeah, that tracks. I mean if you’re constantly stressed and overwhelmed and your supervisor’s response is something along the lines of, “Yes, I completely understand. When can you get me that report?” That’s going to make you feel like they or at least the administration doesn’t care.

  • 33.9% disagreed or strongly disagreed that their Institution was “Invested in Career Development.” This certainly tracks. Professional development funds are usually the first to get cut. Plus, supervisors are so BLEEPING busy, who has time to help anyone else develop, right?

  • 43.5% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they were satisfied with their Institutions “Opportunities for Advancement.” I think part of this is simply that some campuses have limited positions, so where would you go? But I do think it’s connected to the last one about career development. If no one’s helping you grow as a professional, you’re going to be stuck in the level you are now even if there are openings across campus.


CUPA-HR also asked about satisfaction with the work environment, and I’ll just share two here…

  • 23.9% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they were satisfied being “Recognized for Contributions.” It doesn’t elaborate on what that recognition should be, but certainly if you’re doing more work that should include additional pay, right?

  • And finally, 53% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they were “Paid Fairly.”

In a nutshell, the results are that folks are expected to do an unreasonable amount of work.


That’s certainly true compared to what folks are getting paid, but I’d say it’s true in general as well. And what I mean by that, is if you were to be compensated for all the “extra” work you’re doing, it would probably still be too much work, right? At a certain point, it interferes with the quality of your life.


Now earlier, I perhaps stupidly decided to tie all this back to coaching. And it’s not stupid per se, but potentially challenging given the time constraints of a reasonably timed article. That being said, I do believe coaching is vital to helping you keep your employees. Why?


Well for most of you, when do you think you’ll find out someone on your team is looking for a new job? It’s probably going to be when they give their two weeks’ notice. And that’s too late. And if you’re thinking, “I have a great relationship with my team, so I’m sure they’d tell me before then.” Would they? I’ve heard from plenty of folks who are looking and do think their supervisor is great, but they can’t take the stress from all the work or simply need more money to be comfortable. They aren’t telling anyone they’re looking though because they don’t want to let you down or make you angry. There are also plenty of stories out there about great supervisors who suddenly start treating people differently because they’re looking for a new job.


So how can coaching help with that? Well, if you’re meeting and coaching your team on a regular basis, you can check in with them to see how they’re doing. And I don’t mean continuously asking everyone if they’re happy or if they’re looking for a job. I mean you can ask them questions that will help you determine their engagement level. I’ve talked about using Gallup’s Q12 Engagement Survey on many occasions. You can easily break it down and start asking questions around those 12 areas. For example, “What additional resources do you need to do your job more effectively?” Or “What’s unclear about this task that I can clarify for you?” Back to the survey results, you could take that opportunity to recognize folks for their contributions even if you can’t do so monetarily. If you look at the CUPA-HR survey results, so much of the data directly ties back to employee engagement.


Coaching also gives you the opportunity to help people better manage their energy. That includes focusing on their Strengths Zones, which is going to empower them to be more effective in what they have on their plates. That includes helping them set priorities and weeding out projects and tasks that aren’t the best use of their time. Right now, everyone’s running around trying to get EVERYTHING done while putting out supposed fires. That’s just impossible. And if you’re not helping guide your people through that, they just see a never-ending stream of work that they can’t keep up with. They need to know you have their back and will support them, including setting things aside.


We’ve built so many check-in opportunities for students to ensure they’re succeeding and not falling through the cracks. This is driven by our goal to increase retention. We don’t want to be surprised that someone is withdrawing from school, so we do everything we can to support them along the way. Are they struggling in class? BOOM! Let’s get you hooked up with some tutoring. Are they feeling completely overwhelmed? BOOM! Here’s the number to the counseling center. You’re struggling financially and working two jobs to even be able to afford to stay here? BOOM! Let’s talk to someone in financial aid. There are support mechanisms in place to keep your students on campus.


But for most of us on the staff side, the only set check-in measure for employees is their annual assessment. Can you imagine only checking in with a student once a year or even once a semester? No one would think that’s acceptable. Too many students would just drop or fail out, leaving us struggling to fill their spot. The same thing is happening to staff members. But that gap can be bridged with regular coaching. You don’t have to be a therapist or financial guru to coach your team. You just need to be able to listen to what’s keeping them from being successful and be supportive as they navigate solutions. How many people would have stayed in their jobs if someone talked to them about how to prioritize their workload and support them as they set aside the things that were unreasonable to accomplish?


And you may be wondering, “But what about me? I’d love to do this for my people, but my supervisors aren’t supporting me. How can I do this for everyone else when I’m struggling?” That’s an excellent question and it goes to the heart of the CUPA-HR survey. In fact, I would recommend taking the survey results to your supervisor and talking about it and your concerns regarding your team. Ask them what they can do to support you in curbing these issues. And while you’re there, tell them that you’re feeling this stress too and need additional support. We’re trained to push through and not ask for what we need, but unfortunately that’s the only way to ensure you get your needs met. If you’re feeling like this, then you’re probably in that very likely/likely to look for other opportunities in the next year group. If that’s true, isn’t it worth your while to see if your supervisor or the powers that be are willing to address these issues now? Having those conversations and developing a game plan can help you retain your team members; and it could also help you.

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