Uni’s got talent: building the best team

What steps can institutions take to ensure they hire key talent and ensure that they keep them from moving on? Keri Beckingham finds out

Today’s universities are operating in a marketplace that is getting ever more competitive – not just in terms of attracting the next cohort of students, but also in terms of the recruitment and retention of staff. 

Ways to recruit

When it comes to recruiting staff, universities are currently utilising three main channels – job boards, recruitment agencies and executive searching their existing talent pools, as well as their own careers sites. Paul Collins, Technical Services Manager at recruitment software specialist Hireserve, believes that it’s important for universities to make the most of their own careers sites when recruiting staff. He said: “Recruiting directly in this manner can benefit universities in terms of costs, as they don’t have to rely as much on paid media job advertisements or recruitment agencies.” 

Malcolm Paice, Chief Operating Officer of Keystone Employment Group, leading providers of online talent and recruitment solutions in the higher education sector believes that it’s important for universities to maximise the skills and experience that is already available to them within their own existing talent pool. He said: “Peer-to-peer recruitment and word of mouth remains important and therefore universities should always ensure they have a good talent pool of their own that they can have ownership of, as hiring someone from your own pool is almost always the lowest cost and fastest way to find talent.”

Another area that universities are increasingly choosing to explore when it comes to recruiting for senior roles and those which have a change agenda is executive search services. Discussing the benefits of this channel in more detail, Richard Hewitt, Head of the Higher Education Practice at education executive search specialists The Spencer Group, said: “Advertising tends not to attract the best individuals in the sector because they’re too busy getting on with their jobs to be browsing advertisements online or in the press. Where a university demands the strongest possible shortlist to select from, those successful individuals have to be approached directly to get them engaged with the opportunity.” 

Improving the recruitment process for the benefit of staff retention

In terms of reviewing application processes, universities should always do this through the candidate’s eyes, and HR and recruitment teams should also try out their own process in order to understand if it is as easy and intuitive as they want it to be. As Paul Collins commented: “An application needs to be relatively quick and simple in order to retain candidates throughout the process – otherwise organisations risk seeing talent drop out during lengthy or complex forms.” 

Richard Hewitt also believes that staff retention issues in the first couple of years of a person’s appointment can be as a result of the job they accepted not living up to their expectations. Commenting on the role that executive search can play in improving staff retention, he said: “Executive search firms will keep in touch with appointed candidates to see whether issues arise to help their clients stay ahead of them.  

“University HR teams and line management can also keep close to these potential problems by periodically speaking to new appointees in their first couple of years about whether their expectations have been met, but it’s important that where there is a disconnect that this is acknowledged honestly and steps taken to either make it right or find an alternative to compensate.” 

Developing technologies

Within the HE sector, technology is starting to play a bigger role in the recruitment and retention of staff, especially in regards to the use of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), which can have significant benefits for HR and recruitment as they can automate administration and provide time- and cost-savings as a result. Looking at how ATS has made a difference at the University of Wolverhampton, Paul Collins comments: “If you were to step into the University of Wolverhampton’s HR and recruitment office several years ago, you would have seen a highly manual recruitment process. You would have watched team members filling envelopes with application packs to send to candidates, and seen a vast Excel spreadsheet on someone’s computer screen.

“The team implemented an ATS a number of years ago, which has enabled them to automate and streamline their recruitment activity, from screening candidates to requesting references, and they have seen significant benefits in time and costs.

“For example, before using an ATS they had to log in to each job board and copy and paste the individual vacancies but now they can send jobs automatically to boards such as jobs.ac.uk from within their ATS instead.”

Another institution which has benefited from the use of technology within their recruitment and retention process is Brunel University London. In 2016, they issued a tender for an electronic timesheet solution for temporary workers (including students), with a view to improving compliance and creating a more automated, accurate and efficient means of processing temporary work timesheets and payments. Keystone Employment Group successfully bid for this contract with its Talent Bank solution, and soon after implementation they helped Brunel University London realise greater benefits for the on-boarding and management of student workers at the University.

Discussing the impact that Talent Bank has had, Julie Rees, Director, Professional Development Centre at Brunel University London, commented: “We wanted to have an electronic timesheet solution that saves on time and paper processes. Keystone’s Talent Bank provides that, with a wealth of other benefits that should, over time, give us a modern and efficient way of engaging workers at the University. There are also some clear benefits to our innovative approach towards improving student employability.’

‘In terms of reviewing application processes, universities should always do this through the candidate’s eyes.’

Keeping staff happy

Once an institution has made improvements to its recruitment process in order to maximise the potential for attracting key talent, their next challenge is to ensure that they motivate and retain them. As Richard Hewitt said: “Usually, the most driven and effective individuals will thrive in an environment where they can make a difference beyond the standard expectations of their role. It is these individuals that search firms seek to attract and it is these individuals that universities should try to retain.” 

When it comes to looking at the overall package that staff are offered, there are several options that a university should consider, such as benefits and career progression opportunities, which should be also be reviewed against the offering of other institutions in their sector. As Paul Collins discussed: “Universities could consider initiatives such as work shadowing or taster sessions in other departments of the university, so school or college leavers or grad hires can grow their careers with them, rather than seeking opportunities elsewhere.” 

Flexible working, reward policies and wellbeing initiatives can also work in a university’s favour when it comes to retaining their talent. As Malcolm Paice said: “I think there is a great deal more flexibility and variety in the university workplace than there was, say 10 years ago, which is especially attractive to working parents.

“More universities are also taking their reward policies more seriously than before, and having regular, meaningful reviews of pay rates. In addition we see more institutions investing in wellbeing initiatives and environmental improvements on campus which make it a more attractive place to work.” 

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