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Pervasive staffing crisis across US international ed sector

At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, myriad colleges campuses across the US resorted to online learning. International education offices were one of those hit the hardest, with travel restrictions and lockdowns being implemented worldwide.

"There is an expertise that is needed to manage things properly"

As a result, many employees were laid off or furloughed. Yet, emerging post-pandemic, countless staff have since moved on to other HEIs, transitioned to the private sector, or have left the field completely.

Beth Laux, president and CEO of Quest Cultural Solutions told The PIE News that it is part of a larger trend across all of higher education. “Vacant positions are receiving significantly fewer applicants, and the applicants in those pools tend to have less experience. As a result, positions are staying vacant for longer periods of time and international education offices are struggling to manage routine operations,” Laux shared.

“International education offices are struggling to manage routine operations”

This month, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources published the results of its spring survey, indicating over three quarters of respondents were pursuing new work opportunities. The primary reasons were increased pay, remote work options, flexible work schedules, and advancement in positions.

Diane Arguijo, interim executive director of IE at San Mateo County Community College District discussed these staffing concerns with The PIE.

“After two years of online courses and remote work, international staff are looking for more flexibility in their work schedule, such as hybrid schedules,” Arguijo said.

“Some are looking to advance in their careers by working in fields outside of education as the number of job opportunities continues to increase across all career fields,” she continued.

Another factor is the recent rise in housing prices and staff who move further away from urban areas. She indicated that many staff will no longer endure long commutes when remote work has become such a mainstay.

Results from a recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey revealed almost 80% of over 700 participants indicated an increase in available campus positions this year, and even more referenced an increased difficulty in filling those positions.

Laux shared two primary reasons that may be behind this trend. “The first is market competition. As we emerge from the pandemic, the job market is fiercely competitive. IE offices are struggling to provide wages and hiring incentives that entice applicants to accept job offers,” she told The PIE.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, the job market is fiercely competitive”

Another contributing factor is workforce burnout.

“The demands placed on international educators during the pandemic were significant, and that workload never levelled out.” Rather, she said expectations for international staff continue to rise, “particularly in the areas of student support, travel logistics, and regulatory compliance”.

Indeed, staffing issues are widespread across HEIs, from entry-level staff to director level positions, and this phenomenon has dominated discussions at recent conferences across the sector.

At the IACAC conference, The PIE spoke with Jeff Hutcheson and Lisa Besso, both founding partners at Global Ed Professionals about trends in staffing. “Institutions cut staff due to the pandemic and now that applications and students have started flowing again, they don’t have capable staff to cope with the workload,” Besso said.

“The same worker shortage that’s impacting enterprises of all types is impacting HEIs, but there is an expertise that is needed to manage things properly,” she added.

Hutcheson asserted, “It is harder for HEIs to compete for entry- and mid-level [positions] when the service sector is responding to the shortage with increased wages. HEIs do not always have the luxury of so quickly increasing wages.”

As such, there is a heightened call for universities to get creative. “We are looking at addressing this crisis by providing flexibility in remote work where it makes sense, and looking for ways to make it easier to afford to live in our county through competitive compensation, housing stipends, and more faculty and staff housing,” said Arguijo.

Many HEIs are also turning to outside agencies for temporary staffing, project management, and consulting.

“There are many experienced people who don’t want to work full-time that can help if institutions have an appetite for job sharing,” Besso said. She referenced a session at IACAC on retired international educators who assist in short-term assignments. “This is a testament to the pool of talent that is out there for those institutions willing to give this a try.”

Similarly, Laux contended that solutions to staffing issues are incredibly complex, noting that the international education sector does not have “built-in solutions” for these challenges in the shifting labor market and need “accessible solutions that help international educators thrive in our changing industry”.

As the new academic year approaches, the extent to which positions will be filled, and international offices up and running at pre-pandemic capacity, still remains to be seen.

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