Career Ceilings

Confessions of a Community College Dean

Several years ago, a wise colleague described someone else at the college – a terrific person, high performer, and just generally good egg – as having attained her dream job too young.  The wise colleague was concerned that she would burn out over time, since there wasn’t really an obvious route upwards from there, and you can’t do that job forever.

It stuck with me.  My wise colleague had a point.

This week’s piece in IHE about community colleges’ struggles to hire staff reminded me of that.  Struggles to hire are only part of the picture.  It’s hard to retain terrific people when the ceilings offered by their positions are too low.

For an industry as status-obsessed as it is, higher ed is remarkably bad at building career ladders.  That’s particularly true among many staff roles, as opposed to faculty or management.  Far too many of them simply don’t offer any possibility of advancement, whether because the next level up requires other kinds of experience that their role doesn’t offer or because the incumbent is entrenched for the foreseeable future.  When raises trail inflation for years and promotion isn’t an option, it’s going to be hard to keep the best people.

As obvious as the issues are, though, they’re tough to solve.

Part of the issue is money, of course.  But it isn’t just that.  The various tasks within a college are often quite specialized; expertise in one area doesn’t carry over to others.  But moving up the ranks typically involves working with more areas.  A great financial aid officer who aspires to be a finance and admin VP will suddenly be responsible for overseeing construction and bond issues.   A terrific librarian may suddenly have to become an expert on tutoring.  For colleges that only have one library, the next step up for the head of the library is likely a very different job.

The pervasive and corrosive narrative of “administrative bloat” makes matters worse.  If every new step in the ladder designed to give folks opportunity is immediately blasted as wasteful, it’s often easier in the short term to avoid the battle.  Costs of promotions are tangible; costs of turnover are delayed and harder to pin on one cause.

But from the perspective of a staff member who’s basically stuck, none of that matters much.  What matters is that they have to move out to move up, whether that means adopting an entirely different role or working for a different employer.

The issue is a bit more nuanced for faculty when they can rise from assistant to associate to full professor.  But even there, someone who achieves the rank of full professor in their forties is facing the prospect of flat income for the rest of their careers unless they take on a fundamentally different job.  And depending on the field and one’s personality, the sameness of the tasks over the years can become wearing.

Professional development can help, but it’s often so general or abstract as to be oversold.  The occasional workshop on “leadership” is well and good, but it doesn’t give the area-specific knowledge to help the financial aid director manage construction.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college handle the “career ceiling” issue for staff particularly well?  If so, what was the secret?  I’d love to share it with the world.

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Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Wednesday, January 4, 2023
Diversity Newsletter publication date:
Wednesday, January 4, 2023