International education leaders list a number of reasons why it’s become more difficult to hire—some tied to international education, others to the broader workforce trends roiling virtually every sector. Illustration: Shutterstock
As part of an ambitious restructuring of the international office at Louisiana State University (LSU), Samba Dieng, MS, had four open director-level positions to fill in 2021. The pool of candidates, he says, “became smaller and smaller” as the year progressed, prompting him to close one search and reopen it.
“I had this highly attractive position at a flagship institution, and the pool of candidates was still small,” says Dieng, who is the senior internationalization officer (SIO) and executive director of international programs at LSU.
The challenge of attracting and retaining international office staff at all levels has intensified at what is a promising time for international education following pandemic-related program cancellations and staff retrenchment throughout all of higher ed. As global mobility resumes, many institutions are expanding their international offices and programs and reemphasizing global awareness and connectedness. But their leaders are facing headwinds from the so-called “Great Resignation”—the dramatic levels of turnover that saw more than 47 million Americans leaving jobs in 2021 as the pandemic began to abate.
“I have so many vacant positions. The staffing challenge is everywhere, but in the international sector, it’s even greater.” —Baihua Chadwick
In conversation, several international education leaders indicated that this has translated into failed searches, low numbers of applicants for open positions, requests for remote work or to forego relocation, and challenges in competing with the changing salary and flexibility expectations seen in virtually every sector and profession.
“I have so many vacant positions,” says Baihua Chadwick, BA, MMI, vice president of international for Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. “The staffing challenge is everywhere, but in the international sector, it’s even greater.”
Recruiting and Retention in a New Era
International education leaders list a number of reasons why it’s become more difficult to hire—some tied to international education, others to the broader workforce trends roiling virtually every sector.
When mobility was brought to a halt in March 2020, the prospect of working remotely made entry-level jobs in international education less attractive than when global travel and events were the norm, Chadwick argues. That, in turn, has contributed to a ripple effect that has impacted staffing at all levels, she says. “Fewer people are coming into the industry, and that chokes the higher end of the talent. If you don’t have fresh blood, you’ll have a big problem hiring senior talent.”
Attracting new talent involves many of the same challenges that higher education has always faced, including fixed salary levels and a lack of understanding of the benefits many institutions offer. Nor is retaining existing employees a new hurdle for international education, where it’s common for career paths to include stops at multiple institutions.
At Kent State University, for example, Sarah Malcolm has long been aware of her institution’s proximity to the large number of nearby colleges and universities throughout Ohio.
“We’re going to have to think about being a little more creative in terms of talent acquisition. The field changed in a significant way, and we have to think about how we do things differently.” —Samba Dieng
“When looking for a career in higher education, it’s a great place to be,” says Malcolm, executive director of the office of global education. “It’s always been an issue for us. As much as we’d love to have employees here for a lifetime, we know they’re going to move on to other positions.”
What’s different is that international education now faces the same headwinds as other sectors, including many current and prospective employees’ desire to maintain remote work schedules or to avoid relocation—a particular challenge for the student-centered work of international offices.
Broader institutional policies also create constraints to flexibility in some places. At Kent State, the university’s telecommuting policy excludes all student-facing and supervisory roles. Even so, most students continue to request virtual advising appointments this semester, leading staff to come into the office to interact with students remotely, Malcolm says.
Strategies to “Do Things Differently”
These challenges are prompting international education leaders to consider new approaches to attracting and retaining staff.
“We’re going to have to think about being a little more creative in terms of talent acquisition,” Dieng says. “The field changed in a significant way, and we have to think about how we do things differently.”
Among the potential strategies:
Change hiring criteria.
Some international offices are mirroring changing hiring practices in other sectors by focusing less on candidates’ specific experience and more on their willingness to learn. “I’m looking for people with potential, and then my team and I will be putting in the time to train them,” Chadwick says. To that end, she and her colleagues are developing a formal mentoring program.
Focus on team-building.
Along with identifying more professional development opportunities for staff, Dieng is thinking about creating more team-building exercises and opportunities for his team to come together. “It might be necessary to offer these exercises more frequently for it to be a norm,” he says.
Rethink long-standing obstacles.
While the Great Resignation has created new challenges for hiring and retention, it’s also highlighted long-standing issues—chief among them, salary levels that SIOs may be powerless to change.
“We all need to be advocates,” Malcolm says. “We require highly skilled employees, and we’re paying them unskilled wages. That’s the challenge we’ll keep butting our heads against.”
Implement new staffing structures.
It’s often mocked as a stereotype, but younger generations tend to expect to progress in their careers more quickly than their predecessors did—and the field of international education is no exception. To support retention, Malcolm created a system of step promotions. Now, after 2 years, employees who meet their training and benchmark goals are promoted to a senior position.
“It’s not fully automatic, but if an employee is doing a good job and working through their training and goals, they’re going to get promoted,” she says. “That has helped to retain employees.”
Chadwick hopes that training, mentoring, and creating development plans for staff will help convince staff that her institution “can provide opportunities to grow” over time.
“We need to make development plans that are more realistic to where they are, not where I was,” she says.
Allow flexibility where possible.
While it may not be possible for staff in student-facing or managerial roles, some international education leaders are considering more flexibility for remote work than in the past, particularly when institutional policies allow it. Looking to tap into a broader pool of talent in Vancouver without losing the spontaneous in-person “watercooler” discussions that spark innovation, Chadwick is exploring the possibility of allowing some staff to work remotely most of the time and come to campus every second or third week—a move supported by changing institutional policies.
“The university as a whole is exploring hybrid work modes,” she says. “This was unfathomable prepandemic, but here we are.”
This article first appeared on International Educator.