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Your Employees Are Still In Charge – What Do You Do Now?

| March 28, 2023

by Jack Wolfe

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is by Jack Wolfe, MOR Associates Executive Coach and Senior Consultant.  Jack may be reached at [email protected].]

Last year, just about this time, we looked at our nation’s employment situation, and asked“With unemployment low, turnover high, and job openings plentiful, what should we be doing to ensure that we have, and keep, the people we need for both operational and strategic activities”?

What question should we be asking now?  You know I love data – here’s some for you:

  • At the end of 2020, we had 10.7M people unemployed with an unemployment rate of 6.7%. At the end of 2021, we had only 6.3M people unemployed with an unemployment rate of 3.9%, roughly the same level as February 2020, just pre-Covid. At the end of 2022, we had just 5.7M people unemployed with an unemployment rate of 3.5%.
  • At the end of 2021, we had 10.9M job openings – comparing that to our 6.3M unemployed folks, we thus had 1.7+ job openings per unemployed individual. At the end of 2022, we also had 10.9M job openings, unchanged from 2021, but, with lower unemployment of 5.7M, we now have 1.9+ job openings per unemployed individual, up 10%+. The employment market continues strongly in favor of the employee. Demand far exceeds supply!
  • And people are leaving their jobs in droves – Total Separations (voluntary and involuntary) were up 5% in 2022 to 72.3M. 70% of those, or 50.6M, were voluntary quits, the highest in the 21-year history of the U.S. BLS Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS).

Given that we should expect turnover to decrease over time, as those easily led away would likely depart in the first year, It looks like we should still be asking exactly the same question, maybe a bit more intensely:  “With unemployment low, turnover high, and job openings plentiful, what should we be doing to ensure that we have, and keep, the people we need for both operational and strategic activities?”

There’s an important change in the way we think about work. Erin Cech of the University of Michigan led a 2021 study of 1,628 well distributed college-educated workersterminated during the pandemic, people whom we would think might place a very high value on financial security and stability – surprisingly, not so. 46% rated passion as their top priority, while 20% rated salary as their top concern, and only 13% noted job security as their top issue. Think about that – people have recently been fired, the economy is at risk, and 3.5X more rate passion as their top priority compared to job security – passion really counts! Cech notes that “the Great Resignation may be perpetuated in part by workers seeking a different relationship to paid work – one that provides greater meaning and fulfilment to their lives.”

What should we do? As references, start with the dynamite articles, both in early 2022, from Laura Patterson (Purposeful Leadership) and Brian McDonald (Solutions to Losing Talent). They clearly outline highly useful approaches and actions. I added thoughts on Daniel Pink’s approach to motivation and performance – Mastery (we have a valued skill), Autonomy (we have the freedom to employ that skill in the ways we best see fit), and Purpose (we deploy that skill in societally beneficial ways).

What else should we be doing – let’s look at a few items:

  • Hiring (and Retention) – Everyone has some turnover, so hiring is often continuous. Thus, I regularly hear: “I can’t compete – we can’t pay private company salaries”. You can compete! Think about your three BIG advantages: (1) You have FAR better and more flexible work-life balance; (2) You will usually have much better benefits, particularly around retirement; (3) and, most importantly, you have purpose in spades – look at what Laura has to say about purpose:

“Employees want organizations where they can contribute, where teammates care about them and their interests, where they feel they belong, and where their work matters. Employees find purpose when their personal values align with organization culture and when interactions with colleagues are meaningful. Leaders can help employees find purpose in their work by building a culture where every voice is heard, everyone can contribute, employees connect with each other, and they see how their work connects to the goals of the organization.”

“It isn’t only individuals who benefit from purposeful work. Organizations also benefit when employees find their work purposeful. People who live their purpose at work are more productive than people who don’t. They are also healthier, more resilient, and more likely to stay. Moreover, when employees feel that their purpose is aligned with the organization’s purpose, the benefits include stronger employee engagement, heightened loyalty, and a greater willingness to recommend the organization to others.”

  • And DEIB is gradually (maybe a bit too slowly) finding its way more into our higher education organizations. This creates at least two wonderful benefits – one is the presence of teams that are chosen to be diverse; simply having diversity present starts us on the road to inclusion. The second is that leaders across most of higher education are beginning to understand both the value and practice of inclusion. That combination, the presence of diversity coupled with the practice of inclusion, will lead to both FAR better organizational and individual decisions, and FAR better execution.

So, at the end, what do we have: (1) it’s still an employee’s market – they can choose to move, and be reemployed in a heartbeat; (2) voluntary turnover is at record levels, two years in a row; (3) purpose is a true advantage for higher education; and (4) for both the purposes of hiring and retention, you can compete – work-life balance, great benefits, and purpose. With DEIB now in the mix, higher education leaders can build their dream teams of tomorrow– get on it!

This Week’s Survey
What percentage of your team has left in the past year?

0%       1-5%          6-10%       11-24%       25% or more

From Last Week
Last week we explored practices, and how sometimes less is more.  When asked about the state of our practices today:

23% said they do not have any practices in play.
42% said their practice is more an intention to keep in mind.
19% said their practice is pretty structured – clearly defined, clear in frequency, and tracked.
16% said they have more than one practice going now.

For the one in five of us who have a clearly defined and tracked practice, congratulations and good work on your diligence here!  And even more kudos to the more than one out of every six of us who have multiple practices going!  However, for the rest of us – roughly two out of every three readers – who either don’t have any practices or whose practice is more of an intention, if you want to further develop your practice we have on big piece of advice: start small.  What is the first step you can take?  Make it modest, do it once a day, be open to learn, and that practice can grow.  Relating to this week’s reading, what is one small step you can take this week to continue to build or nurture your dream team?