I have been working in Student Affairs for 25 years now. That is quite a long time. And I have had a fulfilling and enjoyable career. From my early days as a Graduate Assistant at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in the mid-90s to my current role as the Executive Director of the Florida Consortium, my roles have allowed me to work and teach in several capacities and scenarios. I have very few regrets and much more appreciation for the work I have done. But I know I am somewhat of a unicorn. See, the vast majority of my career has been spent in two places, Nacogdoches, Texas, and Orlando, Florida. If you look at my CV I have drawn a paycheck from two universities; Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas and the University of Central Florida. I moved my family exactly one time, in 2011 and I have liked the stability of that career path.
But I have to say, this is not the normal career path. For a good majority of student affairs professionals, I know the need to move, and move often to advance is the norm. Recently I did some LinkedIn stalking and looked up the career paths for several Vice Presidents I am connected to or know. To get to their current role the average number of jobs each of these leaders have had (with an average of 26 years served) was 5.5 moves. That is an average of a new job every four to five years to get to their current position. Now, this survey was very unscientific but I don’t think these numbers would shock anyone. If you want to advance, you will likely have to move.
And this makes sense to me intuitively but I get caught up in how practical that is. On one side of my brain, I understand that there are only so many universities and so many annual openings in our career track. So when you are ready the VPSA may not be in Omaha where you live but resides in Phoenix so it’s time to warm up the moving truck. However, the other side of my brain has a hard time making that leap. As a former Air Force Brat I understand how being on the move so often upends families, can make it hard for spouses to advance in their careers, and can be a drain on our energy. Not to mention the disruptions to our students. If many higher ed professionals are spending only 4-5 years at a job then the work to establish a culture, identity, and relationships can be impacted.
All of this can lead to a talent vacuum in our field. We already know that between 50% and 60% of our peers leave the field within the first five years but for those of us who stay the constant motion can be a grind. A 2016 study by Marshall, Gardner, Hughes, and Lowery found that 40% of respondents saw limits to their career advancement due to geographical limitations and 57% of study participants were middle managers when they left the field. This seems to confirm that there is a bit of a glass ceiling for our field. Career melt is a normal thing. All career fields have talent leave when they reach the limits of advancement and need to look elsewhere for inspiration to promotion. But higher ed seems to be a real victim of this melt. We all know a fellow professional who left out of sheer frustration.
Recently, I went through a bit of a personal transition. My daughter went off last year to college and suddenly my wife and I found ourselves alone. We had the world as our oyster. And, naturally, that meant to me that it was time to look for another job. Don’t know why other than with change comes a need to creep on HigherEdJobs.com and find that next spot. I had the sinking feeling that I was behind for some reason. After all, I had been loyal to SFA and UCF in part because I wanted stability for our daughter and I felt that was most important at the time. But now it was time to fire up the moving trucks. I looked all over and found some jobs I was interested in and even did a few interviews. But then it hit me, I didn’t want to move. I like it here in Orlando and I like my work. I have a good job. And my wife, after years of searching for a great opportunity had just the year before took a job in the non-profit sector. My favorite bar was here, my gym, the weather is great, and Orlando offers so much to do and see. What was I so eager for? So I have decided that Orlando is where I need to be. But I am one of the lucky ones.
After all, I have a good role with the Florida Consortium and make a salary that aligns with my lifestyle. I have it pretty good. But for many, as their families grow and as they look for new challenges the need to move outweighs their desire to stay. And I hope we can address this one day. The first way is to find a way to make the work more meaningful on a day-to-day basis. Engaged workers stay, we know this. The second is we need to get better at rewarding loyalty through increased compensation, timely advancement when available, and cross-training to explore other opportunities. That is what happened at SFA and kept me there for 13 years. We also need to pay our employees a living wage for the region they are in. Most coordinator positions pay in the neighborhood of $35,000 a year for a Master’s Required job. That is just above the pay rate for a person making the suggested minimum wage of $15 an hour. That has to change.
Honestly, the issue I began this post to discuss, mobility, seems to be the least of our issues. People are gonna move, and some of my peers enjoy the adventure. A chance to live in interesting places and work with a variety of people. Maybe it is not mobility after all but the need to create working conditions that help folks make decisions based on personal needs and skills versus necessity. Also, we need to not put pressure on anyone to advance if they are comfortable in their role. What seems like languishing to one person is a fulfilling career to others. If you are happy in the role you have, stay. I know I am. Will I want to move one day? Likely, but not today and that should be okay.