The Higher Education IT Workforce Landscape, 2019


This year, we observed a tension between what employees tell us keeps them at their jobs and what CIOs and managers think they need to do to retain their employees. On the one hand, employees cited factors related to well-being and work/life balance as critical for keeping them at a job. On the other hand, obstacles to employee effectiveness and factors CIOs and managers ranked as most important to maintaining their workforce are both related to human and financial resources, which are very traditional concerns.

What Employees Say Is Important for Retention

A competitive salary and good benefits are often thought of as the most important features that organizations use to recruit talent, but what factors are the most important to retaining IT professionals in higher education? The nature of work has changed considerably in the 21st century, and it stands to reason that the job factors employees value may be changing as well. To better understand employee retention, we asked IT professionals to rate how important different factors are at keeping them at an institution. As they were in 2016, factors related to overall well-being were rated as most important, with "quality of life" and "work environment" at the top (see figure 10). When looking by demographics, men, women, Gen Xers, and Millennials rated quality of life highest. Staff and managers rated this factor first, followed by work environment, and CIOs said work environment was only slightly more important than quality of life. While a competitive salary can be critical to attracting the most skilled or experienced candidates, our respondents rated monetary compensation in the middle of the pack as a reason for keeping them where they are. While quality of life is subjective, it is commonly associated with aspects of physical and mental health and well-being.1 So it seems that offering benefits, perks, and programs related to these areas can be helpful in retaining skilled employees.

AABA pub.BA priv.MA pub.MA priv.DR pub.DR priv.Other US  Top factor  for retention  Work  environment Quality of lifeWork  environment Quality of life Quality of life Quality of life Quality of life Quality of life  2nd Quality of life  Work  environment Quality of life  Work  environment  Work  environment  Work  environment  Work  environment  Occupational  stability  3rd Occupational  stability  Occupational  stability  Opportunity to  build my  leadership skills   Occupational  stability  Benefits  My boss/  leadership   BenefitsBenefitsBenefitsBenefits
Figure 10. Factors keeping respondents at their institutions

What Employees Say Are Obstacles to Effectiveness

Participants were also asked to rate the extent to which certain circumstances, skills, and deficiencies were obstacles to their effectiveness in their current positions. Much as they told us when we asked about the skills needed to maintain an IT workforce, respondents most frequently cited general finances and human resources as playing a critical role in assessing their on-the-job effectiveness (see figure 11). CIOs, managers, and staff all rated "insufficient IT staff resources (in general)" as the number one major/critical obstacle to effective job performance, indicating that higher education IT may be feeling the labor shortages that other industries are experiencing.2 In contrast, IT employees across organizational levels rated gaps in abilities and skills at the bottom, which is a trend that is holding from 2016.

AABA pub.BA priv.MA pub.MA priv.DR pub.DR priv.Other US  Top obstacle to  effectiveness  Insufficient IT  staff resources  (in general)  Insufficient  financial  resources  Insufficient IT  staff resources  (in general)  Too many  priorities and  goals   Insufficient  financial  resources   Insufficient IT  staff resources  (in general)  Insufficient  financial  resources  Insufficient  financial  resources  Too many  priorities and  goals  Too many  priorities and  goals  2nd  Too many  priorities and  goals  Too many  priorities and  goals  Institutional  leadership’s  lack of  interest in IT   Insufficient  financial  resources  Insufficient IT  staff resources  (in general)  Insufficient IT  staff resources  (in general)  Too many  priorities and  goals   Insufficient IT  staff resources  (in general)  Insufficient IT  staff resources  (in general)  Insufficient  financial  resources   3rd  Insufficient  financial  resources  Insufficient IT  staff resources  (in my specific  function)   Too many  priorities and  goals  Insufficient IT  staff resources  (in my specific  function)  Insufficient IT  staff resources  (in my specific  function)
Figure 11. Obstacles to effectiveness in respondents' current positions

Given these financial and staffing issues, only slightly more than half of respondents (52%) said it was important to them to work in higher education rather than in another industry or area. However, nearly half of respondents said they would possibly (25%), probably (11%), or definitely (11%) look for employment opportunities outside their current institutions in the next year, which is a decrease of only two percentage points from 2016. These results were similar across organizational levels and Carnegie class, which suggests institutions may experience issues retaining talent, especially in light of US economic growth and low unemployment rates that have resulted in the number of job openings outpacing the qualified labor pool in 2018.3 These economic circumstances may be problematic for higher education IT, as recent research has forecast that talent shortages in technology will continue to grow globally over the next several years,4 with deficits already being reported in information security5 and software development.6

With respondents also reporting that the skills/positions in the shortest supply are those related to security, higher education IT should consider creative approaches to address retention issues. Work/life convenience benefits7 that impact quality of life, such as flextime and telecommuting, are low-cost options that can help employees be more agile in balancing their job duties with personal responsibilities, especially if more competitive salaries aren't in the budget. Recent research suggests more-flexible working hours, vacation time, and at-home work options are highly desirable, second only to better health benefits, when considering a lower-paying job with better perks versus a position with a higher salary.8 Creative approaches like these can also help IT units establish a more diverse workforce and contribute to gender equity, because flextime is highly valued by women9 and can help reduce gender-related pay gaps, particularly for hourly employees.10

What CIOs and Managers Think Is Important for Retention

CIOs and managers were also asked to rate the importance of various factors in maintaining an IT workforce to adequately meet the needs of their institutions in the next three years (see figure 12). As in 2016, the factors that ranked in the top five reflect the importance of sufficient financial and human resources. CIOs and managers agreed that competitive compensation  and additional budgetary resources were the most important factors in meeting institutional needs. There seems to be a disconnect in this area between leadership and staff because those in leadership positions put compensation at the top, while staff rated salary below other factors such as quality of life in keeping them at an institution. Respondents rated additional staff positions in the top five; however, they also put using more contract employees and contracting/rehiring retirees at the bottom, which suggests that even though managers and CIOs believe having more staff is important, hiring contractors may not be considered a viable means of building capacity. More managers than CIOs told us flextime and telecommuting were important in maintaining their workforce; managers likely have closer working relationships with their staff than CIOs and therefore may have a greater sense of how more creative management options would meet the needs of their employees.

Bar graph showing important factors to maintaining the IT workforce, by approximate percentage of respondents. Competitive compensation: CIOs = 75%; Managers = 75%  Additional budgetary resources: CIOs = 70%; Managers = 70% Adequate staff backups: CIOs = 60%; Managers = 60%  Expanded professional development opportunities: CIOs = 60%; Managers = 60% Additional staff positions: CIOs = 55%; Managers = 60%  Flextime: CIOs = 45%; Managers = 55%  Telecommuting: CIOs = 40%; Managers = 48%  Discontinuing selected services: CIOs = 42%; Managers = 42%  Outsourcing systems/applications: CIOs = 47%; Managers = 35%  More use of student employees: CIOs = 45%; Managers = 35%  More varied job assignments: CIOs = 35%; Managers = 38% Outsourcing services/functions: CIOs = 40%; Managers = 25%  More use of contract employees: CIOs = 25%; Managers = 12%  Job sharing: CIOs = 13%; Managers = 15%  Contracting with or rehiring retirees: CIOs = 5%; Managers = 8%
Figure 12. Factors important to maintaining the IT workforce

In open responses, participants also most frequently reported that positions/skills related to security were in the shortest supply at their institutions,11 followed by management,12 database administrators, developers, and network and system administrators. Given that information security was rated number one on the list of Top 10 IT Issues, 2019 (and the three years prior), IT units should focus their efforts on hiring, training, and retaining talent in security-related areas to meet their institutional needs.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQOL), May 31, 2016.

  2. Eric Morath, "American Job Openings Now Outnumber the Jobless," Wall Street Journal,June 5, 2018.

  3. Ibid.; and Eric Morath and Jennifer Smith, "Jobs Go Unfilled as the Economy Expands," Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2018.

  4. Korn Ferry, The Global Talent Crunch, May 2, 2018.

  5. Frost & Sullivan Center for Cyber Safety and Education, 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study: Benchmarking Workforce Capacity and Response to Cyber Risk, 2017; and CareerCast, The Toughest Jobs to Fill in 2018, n.d.

  6. CareerCast, The Toughest Jobs to Fill in 2018.

  7. Society for Human Resource Management, 2017 Employee Benefits: Remaining Competitive in a Challenging Talent Marketplace, April 4, 2017.

  8. Employee Benefits Study: The Cost and Value of Employee Perks, Fractl, 2017.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Claudia Goldin, Hours Flexibility and the Gender Gap in Pay, Center for American Progress, 2015.

  11. Open responses included references to security positions such as security analyst, security engineers, security awareness trainers, and chief information security officers.

  12. Qualitative data coded as "management" included responses such as executive leadership, project management positions, directors, and team managers.