Engaging an Evolving Workforce


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Institutions in all sectors are facing a wave of demographic, regulatory and financial pressures that will change the ways in which they recruit, retain and engage employees. For leaders to be able to respond effectively, they need to have a deep understanding of trends such as the rise of the contingent workforce, the importance of work-family management, the unique needs of an aging workforce and the imminent changes in the economics of healthcare.

Scott Jaschik, Co-founder and Editor of Inside Higher Ed, kicked off the 2012 TIAA-CREF Client Forum by leading an insightful discussion with a panel of experts on HR and employee issues.

One of the most critical issues facing institutions is relentless financial pressure. Paul Csigi, Director of Benefits and Pension Administration for Temple University Health System, highlighted the ways in which organizations can work with their employees to not only cut costs but deepen their engagement. He noted that employer policy should be to keep their employees “healthy, wealthy and wise” — educated about their health, responsible for retirement planning, and engaged in their careers. Doing so not only creates a healthy, productive workforce but brings down costs — for instance, organizations can reduce their healthcare expenditures by offering incentives for preventive care and encouraging employees to eat healthy and quit smoking.

“Once you get people on that track, it creates a snowball effect,” he said. The key is to find the right motivators and then keep communicating. Having employees undergo a health risk assessment, for example, can highlight issues in a way that employees find compelling, and that employers can help them to address.

Keeping employees engaged is a critical consideration in another area: As contingent workers become not just a regular feature of the workforce but, in some cases, the majority of employees, institutions will have systematically rethink their HR and planning systems to accommodate this trend. “Contingency is here to stay, and it is growing in all sectors,” said Adrianna Kezar, Associate Professor for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.

Because contingent workers often have lower pay and fewer benefits, and are frequently hired on contracts lasting just a semester at a time, it is difficult for them to plan for their financial futures and their retirement. While institutions generally hire contingent workers as a way to keep costs down, they should still look for ways to engage contingent workers through orientation, mentoring, or professional development. They can also consider how they can offer contingent workers access to benefits — for instance, by making group health plans available — even if they do not contribute to the costs.

This kind of flexibility and innovative thinking on the part of employers is key to recruiting and retaining talent on a full-time basis as well, and in no area is that more true than in work-family management. “I don’t use the phrase work-life balance, because most people who are parents or caring for elderly parents will tell you that they don’t feel very balanced,” said Lisa Wolf-Wendel, Professor of Higher Ed at the University of Kansas.

Although this is an issue that has certainly received a lot of attention, Dr. Wolf-Wendel points out that there is still a lot of work for institutions to do. Even those organizations that have policies in place frequently fail to communicate them effectively to employees, or the organizational culture discourages employees from taking advantage of the policies. “It really comes down to education of deans, senior faculty, and department chairs,” she said. There are often generational differences in which senior faculty felt forced to choose between work and family, and may not support junior faculty in their desire to balance both. The weak economy also contributes to cultural issues, as employees who feel lucky to have jobs are reluctant to rock the boat by taking advantage of family-friendly policies that are not widely used. Institutions should codify their policies and make information easy to find; they can also take steps such as setting up lactation rooms, which is a simple and inexpensive step but says a lot in terms of promoting a family-friendly culture. Institutions should also recognize that work-life management is a lifelong proposition, and make accommodations in this regard for people of all ages, at every stage in their careers.

Finally, the discussion turned to an issue that cuts across sectors but is especially prevalent in academia: the aging of the workforce. “‘Professor’ is the new oldest profession in the country,” said Dr. Brian Kaskie, Associate Director for the University of Iowa Center on Aging. The increasing age of the workforce has led to increases in salary and health expenditures, and they will only continue to grow as more baby boomers approach retirement age.

Institutions need to take a two-pronged approach to the issue, both accommodating a workforce with unique needs and helping senior employees with effective pathways to a fruitful and successful retirement. Workforce accommodations might include such measures as fitness facilities with education programs and dedicated classes for faculty, ergonomic desk furniture, and scheduling accommodations. At the same time, institutions can ease the path to retirement by providing counseling, especially non-financial counseling. “The generation entering their retirement will have another 30 healthy years, and many of them haven’t thought about what to do with it,” Dr. Kaskie said. HR leaders can practice having these conversations with employees and may also want to consider recruiting HR staff with expertise in aging and gerontology.

Engaging employees will be the most important element in addressing all of the issues raised by the panel. These challenges will require a strategic approach and intensive effort to ensure that an evolving workforce remains productive in their careers and dedicated to their institutions.

Please note the individuals noted in this article are not associated or affiliated with the TIAA-CREF family of companies.

The material is for informational purposes only and should not be regarded as a recommendation or an offer to buy or sell any product or service to which this information may relate. Certain products and services may not be available to all entities or persons.

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