Smaller and Restructured: How the Pandemic Is Changing the Higher Education IT Workforce
One of the most salient consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education has been a reduction and reorganization of the workforce. For example, in a recent QuickPoll, 55% of respondents indicated that they were considering leaving their institution soon, either to work elsewhere or retire.1 The data in this report are taken from a survey of senior IT leaders conducted in October 2021, representing 267 respondents who are the senior-most information technology administrators (e.g., CIO, VP) at their institution. In this report, we share the voices of these leaders by focusing on respondents' open-ended descriptions of the impact of the pandemic on their units and on plans for reorganization. Several prominent themes emerged from the analysis of these responses and are supported by other recent EDUCAUSE research:
- Though most respondents reported a reduction in force, some were able to justify adding new positions to their units in 2021, primarily to meet new institutional needs.
- Budget cuts were the main cause of reductions in force.2
- Work factors such as flexible, remote work options and competitive salaries are playing a central role in attrition and recruitment.3
- Increased workloads and personal stressors related to the pandemic have resulted in widespread burnout among staff.4
- IT units have plans to reorganize in 2022 to become more agile and efficient and to respond to the evolving needs of their organizations.
Size of the IT Workforce
Some positions were eliminated; others were added. Nearly half of respondents (48%) reported that since it began, the pandemic has had at least some effect on the size of the central IT workforce at their institution. A plurality of respondents (42%) reported that in the 12 months prior to the survey, their IT organization got smaller, but 26% of respondents indicated that their IT organization grew in that time. Respondents explained that many IT positions were eliminated due to budget cuts and early retirement, while other positions remained vacant for extended periods after attrition.
"Budget reductions required loss of positions, including student employees. Some of these student positions were a pipeline for potential hire in positions of significant turnover such as network admin, linux admin, etc."
"[Eleven percent] of the IT workforce has separated from the institution either through retirement or for other opportunities."
Some IT units were able to hire more staff to respond to increased institutional needs.
"There has been a dramatic increase in both support needs and need for multimedia production, and so we have been able to justify hiring additional staff."
Budget cuts caused reductions in force and increased workload. Respondents connected budget cuts to outcomes such as staff reductions, difficulty hiring and retaining employees, and having enough resources to carry existing workload.
"[There was a] 15% reduction in IT FTEs. That seems small, but we are really feeling the loss. The service backlog is growing."
"Have been unable to fill some vacancies due to budget constraints."
"Increased load and not enough people/resource capacity to effectively deliver services. Budget cuts resulted in reduction to [an] already stretched workforce."
Working conditions are playing a role in attrition, retention, and operations management. Some staff left to pursue remote work opportunities or higher-paying jobs. IT units are leveraging pandemic work conditions to implement more flexible work and hiring practices, either to retain staff or improve operations.
"Two [people] have left for 'better' opportunities. Our replacement strategies have had to change to include remote work, higher compensation, and out-of-state applicants."
"[The pandemic has] allowed us to adopt flexible workforce policies that have allowed us to retain staff who may have gone somewhere else with greater flexibility or would have moved out of the area for other reasons. It's also allowed us to recruit more effectively."
Remote work is increasingly becoming the new normal, driven by improved remote work processes, observed increases in productivity during the pandemic period of remote work, and staff preferences.
"Nearly all employees work remotely for some portion of their time, anywhere from fully remote to a few days per week. While this existed prior to the pandemic, it is [now] pervasive."
"IT has said for years that many of the functions of our positions could be [achieved] in fully remote positions. The pandemic has proven that we can be just as effective, if not even more effective, in our line of work in a remote setting."
Units that have not supported remote work are seeing an increase in resignations and a decrease in morale.
"WFH requests have not been supported by leaders, [which] has led to employees questioning the below-industry-level compensation and benefits for other positions that do appear to support/reward employees."
"Staff was fully remote for around 18 months. An institution-wide decision was made to return to work physically with only 2 days (3 days as an exception) allowed for remote work. This has created some morale issues in IT since they proved that they were just as, if not more, productive remote."
Turnover has ultimately resulted in extensive burnout. IT units have experienced fatigue and stress, often with few additional resources or support, due to increased workloads and greater pandemic-related worries.
"[There are] anxiety and morale issues, particularly for frontline staff who had to work on campus."
"[T]he team is very tired. Hiring freezes and COVID-related leave [have] taken its toll on the remaining staff who have had to fill in the gaps."
"People are tired from all the extra work, and from the stress and logistics of managing family life."
Evolving workforce challenges continue to point to rising rates of burnout among IT staff and leaders. The EDUCAUSE Library contains a variety of mental health and wellness resources to support your community.
Plans for IT Reorganization
The structure of IT units is shifting to increase agility. In the face of staff turnover and new service needs, IT units are evolving "to support the new normal" and "to support the students and workforce of the future." Respondents described the creation of flatter structures with more emphasis on project-based teams and rewriting job roles to reflect current operations.
"We are realigning operations so that we are structured less according to traditional departments (i.e., academic computing) and more so according to the alignment of compatible services. We are also moving to a 'teams' approach where departments will contribute staff members for a period of time to projects and internal initiatives."
"[We're creating] flatter organizational structures and less 'middle management' for increased agility and more focus on service delivery vs. management."
"Many positions are based on job specs from 15–20 years ago and are no longer relevant in today's profession."
"Given that our roster is smaller, we've had to redistribute roles and responsibilities, outsource some activities, and eliminate some services altogether. Therefore IT job descriptions and duty assignments are in the highest state of flux and churn in my professional experience."
Leadership turnover is also leading to reorganization. As part of the larger turnover trends respondents described, some institutions lost senior IT leaders. New leaders bring their own vision and strategy, potentially leading to reorganization.
"IT lost an executive leader, and with a new permanent president search process in the works, we will eventually hire a new CIO. When this person comes in they will want to assess the organization and make organizational changes."
"[We had a] departure of three senior managers through an early-retirement program."
"We are actively engaging in succession planning."
Remote operations necessitate new support. The types of job roles that are shifting demonstrate institutions' increased focus on remote operation. For example, 21% of respondents indicated that the number of information security job functions at their institutions grew in 2021. Respondents described an increased focus on issues such as security for remote work and increased cloud services to accommodate remote operations for the entire institution (including teaching and learning).
"[There is] additional focus on IT security due to users and teachers being remote and using their own home computers."
"The pandemic has accelerated many initiatives. As the entire institution moved to remote work, most stakeholders are eager to digitize and digitalize numerous processes and procedures. Some changes utilize the expansion of existing technology, while others require new technology."
"[The] transition to more remote and hybrid functions has created demand for enhanced skill sets in cloud-based services."
Institutions continue to work toward centralizing IT. IT units are seeking to reduce duplication of work and modernize services through centralization.
"Continued cloud migrations, a data center move, and increased institutional desire for centralization will likely have us centralize more IT staff/resources."
"[We are] reviewing all areas for duplication of effort. Systems people need to be within central IT and doing the work to a higher level of standards and management control."
"[We are] aligning resources to the future, centralizing core functions and capabilities, enhancing data driven and analytics related decision making."
Resources for Action
- Competency-based EDUCAUSE Institutes, led by experienced higher education leaders help participants develop leadership and innovation skills.
- EDUCAUSE members can participate in our free mentorship program to help develop and achieve personal and professional goals and to receive guidance, support, and growth in a safe environment.
- The EDUCAUSE Integrative CIO Podcast is an ongoing resource for higher education leaders interested in professional and organizational development, best practices, careers, challenges and opportunities, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Resources specific to the IT workforce and digital transformation, including action items for leaders, can be found on this EDUCAUSE Dx and Workforce page.
- The EDUCAUSE Professional Pathways help members develop a curated, informed plan personalized to team and organizational needs.
- As always, the EDUCAUSE Showcase Series presents thematic collections of resources for timely issues.
With the higher education workforce experiencing its greatest state of fluctuation in recent memory, IT leaders are focusing not only on supporting immediate institutional needs but also on anticipating what's next. Units that have not been able to respond quickly enough to rapidly evolving challenges are finding it difficult to recruit and retain staff and provide operational support for their institutions. Agility is proving to be an essential pandemic-era asset, providing leaders with the ability to modify job functions, team structures, and work circumstances as needed.
More Workforce Resources
For more information about digital transformation and resources related to this research, see the 2021 Workforce research hub.
© 2022 EDUCAUSE. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.
Jenay Robert. Smaller and Restructured: How the Pandemic Is Changing the Higher Education IT Workforce. Research report. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, May 2022.
Mark McCormack, "EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: The Workforce Shakeup," EDUCAUSE Review, March 4, 2022.↩︎
Susan Grajek, "EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: IT Budgets, 2020–21," EDUCAUSE Review, October 2, 2020.↩︎
D. Christopher Brooks and Jacqueline Bichsel, "EDUCAUSE and CUPA-HR QuickPoll Results: The Misalignment of Preferences and Realities for Remote Work," EDUCAUSE Review, September 10, 2021.↩︎
Mark McCormack, "EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: Stress in the Workplace," EDUCAUSE Review, January 15, 2021.↩︎