Attracting and Retaining the Best Talent

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An academic working in a university today is required to wear many ‘hats’ that include demonstrable skills in teaching, research and administration, in addition to management skills (depending on seniority). It is not always possible to find a candidate that ticks every box and in recognising this, universities need to develop a strategy that will allow the development of these skills so that the new recruit can fit into their new surroundings and provide a positive contribution to the department and university’s culture. Therefore, many universities have responded by developing programmes for its staff to help foster the best working environment for those already in employment and to create the conditions to attract and retain the best talent.

Developing a coherent career track

The type of talent an institution can attract will depend on the prospects that it could offer in the long term for candidates. The job market is fiercely competitive, with each position attracting at least 80 or more applications, and everyone requires and craves long term stability. The problem, especially for those at the early stage of their career, is that there is no uniform entry into the profession. Some, who are fortunate enough to obtain postdoctoral fellowships, will be afforded the time to write and hopefully publish their work, but this will be offset by less teaching experience. For those hired on teaching positions in the first instance, they will develop an impressive teaching portfolio but will have little time to write, which could ultimately harm their output and reputation as a research-active member of staff in the long term. By exploring the opportunity of providing a defined track for new entrants into the profession, especially those fresh out of their PhD, it will provide an excellent opportunity to nurture and develop talent for the long-term.    

Developing international collaborations

My experience working in a Chinese university has taught me that the development of new skills and opportunities often come from reaching out to others and sharing resources rather than competing with each other. It also provides the platform for shared resources and additional funding opportunities. Some universities in the UK are developing this initiative, whether it is through the opening of campuses in Asia, or through developing exchange programmes with other universities, where staff can visit for an extended period of time to teach or undertake further research. A recent example is the University of Birmingham’s collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to develop a programme that permits staff to undertake research and other academic-related activity at both universities, with an assured academic position following the completion of their programme. Undoubtedly there are other programmes of a similar nature, although many are in their early developmental stages. For younger scholars, this will provide a basis from which they can foster the necessary skills and provide a solid foundation to a long-term academic career.

Leadership roles

In most universities today, promotions to the highest levels require some form of management experience, such as department head, for applications to be considered. Some universities have recognised the challenges posed by this aspect, and have developed programmes to train people who they identify as future leaders with the skills to equip them to be good managers. For those in the mid-career stage, this is very important, since the mentorship that they can provide younger scholars will be instrumental in the latter’s long-term career development. In the same way that younger scholars need nurturing in order to flourish and develop into leading scholars in their field, more senior colleagues need to be provided with the framework within which they can learn the mentorship skills required for helping to develop younger scholars, thus helping universities preserve the talent that they have for generations to come.

Ultimately, attracting and retaining the necessary talent to make a university function in the modern world is becoming increasingly difficult with the ever-growing number of targets that need to be met. However, with a clear strategic vision, and a willingness to adapt to an ever-competitive national and international environment, universities can be prepared for the challenges that they are likely to face in the coming years.

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