Where Are the Career Paths for Staff on Campus?

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By Lee Skallerup Bessette

Whenever I talk to doctoral students or contingent instructors about leaving the faculty career path and shifting into a staff position, I speak glowingly of the work. It’s intellectually challenging, collaborative, and generally conducive to a healthy work-life balance. But I do warn against two sources of frustration for many people in staff roles:

  • A lack of clear career paths within their institution.
  • And, as a result, salary compression.

At least for faculty members hired on the tenure track, the career path is clear: Once tenured you move from assistant to associate professor, and later, if all goes well, to full professor. Administration, too, has an obvious trajectory: You become a chair or an associate dean and then move up the hierarchy into other administrative roles.

For the vast army of us working in “service” departments — student life, IT, HR, faculty development, buildings and grounds, and such — there often is no well-defined career trajectory. Each unit has a director and, depending on its size, maybe an associate director or two. Everyone else within the unit is basically at the same level, regardless of their experience and expertise.

So for most staff members, the only way to move up, and boost your salary, is to leave for another institution or quit academe altogether.

In a January 2020 essay, Patrice Torcivia Prusko, associate director of learning design at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, summed up the problem nicely for staff members pursuing careers in educational design. “More and more people,” she wrote, “are entering the field, excited, only to find there are few opportunities for career progression. They find themselves bored, doing the same job tasks over and over again. With no prospect of being rewarded for enhancing their job skills, and little autonomy — combined with feelings of lack of respect — results in people feeling burned out and leaving higher ed and/or the field.”

The lack of upward mobility leads to the second problem: salary compression. Because of market forces, new employees are often hired at similar or higher salaries than staff members who have been working on the campus for years. Staff wages also remain largely stagnant because there are no real mechanisms for giving significant raises that would correspond with a promotion based on experience.

Further complicating matters, while higher education has robust data on faculty and administrative salaries by rank, field, job title, and institutional type, we have almost no comparable, detailed data on staff salaries, largely due to the nebulous definition of “staff” within institutions.

Public colleges and universities have to make available employee salaries, but private ones do not, and even when those salaries are made public, there appears to be little rhyme or reason to how staff are paid, and why. Unions certainly help, but even then, how much we are paid remains frustratingly hidden and difficult to understand thanks to the number of salary steps, their opaque names (What does “Salary Level S2-S5” on a job ad mean, anyway?), and the evolving nature of staff roles and responsibilities.

Some institutions do try to resolve the issues of low pay and salary compression for those of us who are considered “academic staff” — that is, people in nonfaculty positions that are most directly related to student success, like ed tech or teaching-center staff. But those efforts often fall short and are not extended to nonacademic staff, such as cafeteria workers or groundskeepers.

For example, I used to work in a state that allowed each public college or university to set faculty raises as it saw fit, but prohibited the institution from giving staff raises unless they were to mirror a state increase in staff wages. The state also set ceilings on both staff and faculty salaries — calculated from cost of living in the geographic location. The public institution where I worked was in a region that had shifted from rural to suburban, but its designation as a rural campus — with a concomitant low cost-of-living factor — had not been updated in decades, which meant staff salaries had stagnated.

The state allowed public institutions to shift longtime academic-staff members to a higher pay scale if their jobs had changed and their responsibilities had increased enough to warrant it. That process, however, was frustratingly arduous and often unsuccessful.

While faculty members are accountable to their peers, staff members are at the will of HR. But at least this public institution was trying to deal with the problems of low salaries and salary compression for academic-staff members. Such efforts are rarely made for staff members who are paid hourly wages. In recent years, more and more of those jobs have been outsourced, which means that colleges and universities have little-to-no control or knowledge of how these staff members are paid or treated. And because they aren’t directly employees of the institution, they are excluded from various benefits, such as tuition remission.

Finally, on many campuses, the racial and gender makeup of staff members is often far more diverse than either the faculty or the administration. But since we don’t have a lot of good data on how staff are paid, we don’t know whether white male staff members earn more than their counterparts who are women and people of color. We do know that women with children tend to be less able to move jobs — a decided disadvantage on a career path in which relocating to a new campus is usually the only way to increase your income.

So what can institutions do?

Salary transparency. Job ads for staff positions usually include some opaque pay scale. Instead, post the specific salary range of a position — in dollar amounts — on the job ad. Let everyone see what people are being paid to start. This will probably cause bitterness and dissatisfaction with current staff members, but it is much-needed information for job negotiations. Also, make those salary scales easy to find, easy to understand, and easy to navigate. Clearly define and delineate the differences in each pay “step” as well. Employees appropriately aligned with the salary and job duties are more likely to apply and stay in their positions, potentially decreasing salary-related turnover and job dissatisfaction.

Incorporate staff into administrative culture. Staff members usually are the ones that everyone else on campus goes to when they need to troubleshoot problems (for instance, Covid-1`9), create operational timelines, and develop the actual systems to support some grand, new departmental and institutional venture. Unfortunately, as I noted in a previous column, (“Staff Get Little to No Say in Campus Governance”), we aren’t included in the campus decision-making culture as often as our faculty counterparts. Because of our diversity, we get included in discussions on diversity, equity, and inclusion. But institutions should incorporate the staff into other conversations and committees as well. Many of us have strong institutional memories and can offer valuable insights. And in the process, we may learn about other job openings that align with our personal and professional goals. Cross-institutional hiring helps staff move up and retain institutional knowledge.

Create transparent and consistent structures for promotion. If institutions can do that for professors and administrators, there is no reason why they can’t do it for the staff. This would also fit into my previous recommendation to fully incorporate staff into the administrative structures of the university. As staff members, we want opportunities for professional growth, and we want to be rewarded for that growth in ways that are as open and consistent as they are for professors and administrators. Another important initiative would be the development of a database that allows for cross-institutional comparisons of staff salaries, similar to the way that institutions track salaries for faculty members and administrators.

Assess and resolve any racial- and gender-based salary gaps. You won’t find any disparities unless you look, but it’s better than waiting to be sued. Have every unit on the campus run an audit of staff salaries, and close any gaps that would appear to be based on race or gender. Also, reward seniority in those situations in which newly hired employees with less experience are paid more than people — especially women and people of color — who have been on the campus longer and have more work experience.

Many of us working on “the staff” of any campus love our jobs and enjoy our work. But administratively, our institutions were not built for us or our careers. It’s time to change that and professionalize the staff.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is a learning-design specialist at Georgetown University and an affiliated faculty member in the master’s program in learning, design, and technology.

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