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Filling the void: How higher ed can embrace diversity in an evolving workforce

Experts say targeting the next generation may be the key to institutional success or failure

Less than a generation ago, the American labor pool was whiter and older, according to government demographic statistics. But the most recent data point to a rapidly changing workforce, one defined by greater diversity, a retiring baby boomer generation, and a technologically savvy millennial audience.

Leaders in the education industry recognize that their universities and colleges are critical to preparing students for careers, beyond granting them academic skills only. With increasing diversity in the student population, and ACT survey results showing the ability to work others as being important to employers, college presidents must reassess their hiring practices, in order to incorporate faculty and personnel that can deliver to students the varied cultural and social perspectives they need for success.

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A changing American workforce

Recognizing the ever-expanding state of diversity in the nation will be necessary for industry leaders in how they approach their business models, according to William Frey, author of “Diversity Explosion” and demographer at Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. For administrators and university presidents, this step might include looking at hiring practices at the faculty level.

“About 15 million whites are going to be out of the labor force age population between 2010 and 2030, and about 17 million Hispanics will be new to that population, 4 million asians and 3 million blacks,” Frey said. “All of the growth in the future labor force will be racial minorities, particularly Hispanics, and I think it’s important for people to understand.”

Overall U.S. workforce by age, race

Credit: Bureau of Labor Statistics

And, by 2023, whites will comprise less than half of the U.S. population under age 30, according to Frey in an op-ed piece he wrote for the Los Angeles Times. Data collected from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that the portion of the U.S. population within the age range for the labor force is becoming dominated by younger minorities and older whites. The result for business leaders, he says, is the reality that there is less consistency in workplace culture.

Accordingly, ACT’s latest survey results point to the fact that, more than pure academic skills, employers value social traits that would allow for cooperation within a more diverse setting. Behavioral skills most valued among employers surveyed include acting honestly and treating others fairly, sustaining effort, getting along with colleagues and maintaining composure.

“By 2023, whites will comprise less than half of the U.S. population under age 30.”

William Frey
Author of “Diversity Explosion” and demographer at Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program

Students, as well, recognize the importance of gaining a multicultural educational experience, which is evidenced not only by the rise in campus protests, but also statistics that show students appear to value a campus with diverse classmates and faculty.

Several educational institutions and leaders, therefore, have started to look toward faculty that can deliver the experience and cultural insight to students that would help them succeed beyond the college level. However, hiring younger professors from diverse backgrounds, based on current demographics within the industry, may prove to be more difficult than not.

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Demographics in the education industry

The National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2013, there were 1.5 million faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions. Of all full-time faculty in this category, which comprises 51% of the total faculty pool, 79% were White, 6% were black, 5% were Hispanic, and 10% were asian/pacific islander. The percentages demonstrate that the increase in minorities within the population overall may not coincide with faculty hiring trends.

Workers in education industry by race, 2015

Credit: Bureau of Labor Statistics

At the same time, the percentage of university and college faculty over 65 has more than doubled since 2000, and a third are 55 and older, compared to 20% of the rest of the American labor pool, according to an article from The Hechinger Report. And, another study from 2013 showed that 60% of faculty surveyed said they planned to work past the age of 70, and another 15% to stay until they’re 80.

Workers in education industry by age, 2015

Credit: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Recognizing consequences from ignoring the demographic shift and aging in the white portion of the workforce, leading voices in the education industry have already spoken at length about the challenges that arise with a graying workforce, particularly when it comes to tenure and the desire to hire younger faculty who have technological experience.

Demographic changes in the workforce mean that old professoriate models cannot work in the 21st century, according to the “Future of the Faculty: Collaborating to Cultivate Change” edition of Peer Review, a publication produced by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

“There is a growing divergence between the traditional conception of the professoriate and the changing realities of modern higher education. How we collectively respond to this tension will shape the future of the professoriate in the twenty-first century,” reads the report.

Thus, addressing the statistics on the racial and age makeup of faculty is critical to meeting the demands of a diverse workforce at the student level, says Jerome Williams, the executive vice chancellor and provost for Rutgers University-Newark.

“Each year faculty get older, while the people you stand in front of are the same age...with their own contemporary values.”

Jerome Williams
Executive vice chancellor and provost for Rutgers University-Newark

Williams, who has been working extensively on initiatives regarding diversity in the classroom with the Association of College and University Educators, explains that students look toward the front of the classroom for insight on how to behave in the real world. And, they may not be getting the type of experience they seek from an older, white professor who may not share their contemporary values.

“You look at the education industry — each year faculty get older, while the people you stand in front of are the same age, and each group comes in with their own contemporary values,” said Williams. “Some of these professors have been around for 20 to 30 years and, unless they adapt, they are going to out of touch and not be able to generate material that will resonate with students.”

Williams believes that higher ed institutions that don’t pay attention to the trends and fail to meet student demands for diverse faculty will fall behind even from the business perspective.

“You are going to have students not electing to go to certain universities if they don’t see that they are going to be treated in a way that represents those diverse cultures,” said Williams. “If the population has shifted, and you are going to maintain a particular selectivity, you are going to be drawing from a smaller and smaller market — and this is if you aren’t even looking at it from the social justice perspective.”

“The marketplace is very sensitive and students are going to want to go to campuses that represent diversity, where they feel comfortable being able to approach the instructors and professors.”

Writers at Peer Review agree with Williams’ assessment.

“Higher education will need to adapt to a student population diverse on many dimensions. To be successful, our institutions need to be prepared to accept and respond to this diversity,” they wrote.

“Preparing students to be productive members of today’s workforce will mean institutions must walk the tightrope between pre professional subjects and the liberal arts and sciences, ensuring students meet workforce demands and learn the practical application of their knowledge.”

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A path forward: Embracing a new generation

As industry leaders consider the role of their businesses not only within a younger, increasingly diverse workforce, but also population in general, they must look into solutions that won’t trade-off with profits or functionality. For the education industry, this reality manifests within the faculty population — balancing much older, whiter professors with tenure with the desire to hire younger, minority group professors.

Williams says that there were difficulties in the past with hiring people of color at higher education institutions for reasons of educational attainment or even discrimination.

“We’ve come a long way from a few decades ago, when the number of faculty from underrepresented groups was just abysmally low. I’ve been in business school faculty at different institutions over the last 30 years, and as an african american, in most instances, I was the only one in my department, and in some instances in the whole business school,” he said.

However, this situation isn’t the case anymore, according to Williams.

“There are more and more people coming out with degrees, so it’s not as difficult to recruit someone with a diverse background as it was in the past,” he said. “If you are sticking to that you really aren’t looking hard enough.”

With there being a large pool of qualified faculty of color to pull from, writers at Peer Review say that the biggest challenges facing education executives will be choosing between investment or maintenance of faculty based on funding capabilities — a situation that is largely affected by tenure and an aging faculty pool that doesn’t want to retire.

“One of the major challenges for institutions of higher education will be to leverage the short-term funding opportunities afforded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in order to strengthen long-term financial health, while meeting the demands of changing demographics and workforce needs.”

But, the writers also offer a caveat from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education — embracing the new generation and changes in the workforce is absolutely critical to business success in the industry, even if it means extra costs up front.

“While states and institutions are facing difficult times, this crisis cannot be construed as a reason to abridge historic commitments to affordability, access, and investment in instructional improvements needed to meet future needs for educational attainment.”

At the same time, a 2010 study from the University of Iowa Center on Aging, examined the older faculty population at institutions across the nation. It found that addressing issues pertaining to aging employees is critical, suggesting executives and presidents should take lead in order to ensure there are not inconsistent outcomes.

The report also offered a couple of solutions.

“Institutions should address attitudes about the aging workforce and identify offerings in wellness programming, counseling services, workplace accommodations and retirement pathways,” reads the report.

By offering retirement plans as an alternative to continued employment, presidents may be able to hire more full-time faculty from diverse backgrounds without hurting their bottom-lines.

“Focusing on the development of programs that promote workplace longevity and provid[ing] employees with information that aids their decision-making about retirement will go a long way toward maintaining healthy and engaged employees who pursue a more predictable retirement pathway,” the report also concludes.

Of course, Williams, a proponent of diversity in the classroom, says that while considering the costs is important, being proactive, particularly with the increase in campus protests, is the first way to not only maintain a business, but also ensure that students are getting the experience they deserve and will be prepared to enter the unique workforce.

“Administrators that go out and recruit and hire and make diversity a part of their strategic planning are going to fare better than those who do not. Otherwise, you are going to send a message to many students that this particular school might not be the one for them,” said Williams.

“This has become a changing world not only in the workforce, but in educational institutions. We have to prepare students to enter that new workforce. We have to expose them to faculty who will be able to help them understand the type of world they are going to be going into.”

Graphic Design: Natalie Forman

Publicity: Taylor Gasdia

Data Collection: Zack Hauck

Front-End Programming: Hayden Wagner

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Filed Under: Higher Ed
Top image credit: Getty Images