Higher Education’s Role in the Era of the Great Resignation – Inside Higher Ed

Hidden behind the hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., the failure of thousands of businesses, the pervasive distancing and shut-in lifestyle, has come a tidal wave of resignations of workers from coast to coast. As Anthony Klotz, an organizational psychologist at Texas A&M University who coined the term “the Great Resignation,” observes, “During the pandemic, because there was a lot of death and illness and lockdowns, we really had the time and the motivation to sit back and say, ‘Do I like the trajectory of my life? Am I pursuing a life that brings me well-being?’”

As safe practices and vaccinations begin to take hold of this evil plague, bringing down the surge in deaths, one might have expected to see American workers welcome the return to the workplace and a familiar circle of friends and culture. On the contrary, as Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic: “Look at what we have instead: a great pushing-outward. Migration to the suburbs accelerated. More people are quitting their job to start something new. Before the pandemic, the office served for many as the last physical community left, especially as church attendance and association membership declined. But now even our office relationships are being dispersed. The Great Resignation is speeding up, and it’s created a centrifugal moment in American economic history.”

It has become apparent that for a growing number of Americans there is no return to the way it was prior to 2019. Gigantic office buildings, work cubicles, water-cooler conversations, rigid work hours, massive rush hours and lockstep career paths are falling away. What are the resigning workers looking for? Of course, there is not one answer. However, the mental health strain of the COVID plague and the myriad of ripples across our society have taken a life-changing toll on millions of people. Taylor Telford and Aaron Gregg report in The Washington Post,

Workers are quitting at or near record levels in nearly every sector tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, going back to 2001. But the pains are most acute among low-wage workers, who economists say are revolting against years of poor pay and stressful conditions. Many are now less willing to endure inconvenient hours and low compensation and are quitting at this stage in the pandemic to find better opportunities elsewhere. Nearly 40 percent of workers who quit in August worked in restaurants and hotels. Quits also are soaring among manufacturing and warehouse workers, who are straining under the pressures of surging demand and crunched supply chains.

McKinsey conducted a survey across industries and found that while those in the restaurant and hotel industries were quitting in high numbers, it was not at all restricted to those fields or only in the U.S.:

Executives who think that employee attrition is easing — or is limited to particular industries — are misguided. Forty percent of the employees in our survey said they are at least somewhat likely to quit in the next three to six months. Eighteen percent of the respondents said their intentions range from likely to almost certain. These findings held across all five countries we surveyed (Australia, Canada, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and were broadly consistent across industries (Exhibit 1). Businesses in the leisure and hospitality industry are the most at risk for losing employees, but many healthcare and white-collar workers say they also plan to quit. Even among educators — the employees least likely to say they may quit — almost one-third reported that they are at least somewhat likely to do so.

Among the millions of people who have quit their jobs in recent months and those who are expected to continue this trend through the end of year, how can higher education help them reskill, upskill or change career paths to better meet their needs? We have a few clues as to what they desire. As expected, more income seems to be among the factors they are seeking.

Evergreen Dimes has conducted a study using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET and PayScale to compile a list of “40 High-Paying Careers in Demand for the Next 10 Years.”

This may be a good place to start in designing online short courses, stackable certificates and programs that can lead to a relevant degree. Of course, the programs should offer the kind of flexibility that these prospective students desire. They should feature universal design principles that serve all students. Remember that many of these adults have resigned their jobs in part to escape the rigidity and lack of prospects for advancement at their former places of employment.

However, it is not all about money and flexibility. Over the past two years, we have seen again and again that an empathetic and supportive working culture is valued highly by employees. The pandemic has advanced the importance of well-being, inclusiveness, innovation and entrepreneurship. We should be sure to model these practices in the delivery of all programs.

Of course, the programs should be online, affordable, accessible, relevant and robustly supported by academics, advisers and technical staff.

Who on your campus is tracking the demographics and needs of those engaged in the Great Resignation? Are administrators and faculty aware of the emergence of this growing segment of the workforce? Is your institution agile enough to design new programs to meet the needs of these millions of workers who have called it quits in their current jobs?