Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Fearless Prediction

In the next two to three years, we will see a level of personnel movement in higher ed that will dwarf anything we’ve seen since the 1960’s.

I’m basing this on two observations. The first is the increasing median age of full-timers in higher ed, especially on the administrative side. The second is the extinction of pay raises.

There have been recessions before. In previous recessions, I’m told, the drill was as follows: low or no pay raises for a few years, followed by “make them up to you” raises when the money came back. The idea was to reward loyalty among those who stuck around during the bad years.

I don’t foresee the “make them up to you” raises this time around. The political direction of the country being what it is, I just don’t see public employees winning significant gains in the foreseeable future.

That means that for many people, the only way to effect a meaningful increase in salary will be to change jobs. And those who do will be well-advised to negotiate hard at the point of hire, since they won’t be able to count on meaningful raises over time. If you’re fairly confident that any increases over the next half-decade or more will be below the rate of inflation, then you’d best get every penny you can upfront. It’s all downhill from there.

Incumbent employees will cry ‘foul’ over salary compression or inversion, and they’ll have a point. But when the rules favor one course of action over another, you have to assume that some people will act accordingly. Rule out raises for staying in place, and you will get movement. It’s as simple as that.

Some level of movement can be a good thing. When a campus or program becomes too inbred and static, it starts settling for things it shouldn’t. The occasional fresh pair of eyes can keep people honest and bring new perspectives to bear on existing problems. (I’ve seen departments that have gone literally decades between hires; at a certain point, “stasis” becomes “stagnation.”) But there can be too much of a good thing.

At this point, I suspect, we’re in the lag period between a fundamental change on the ground and people fully comprehending the change. We still have plenty of people playing by the old rules, just waiting for the “make it up to you” part of the cycle. But lags don’t last forever. Sooner or later, and I’m guessing sooner, people are going to start adapting to the new reality. When you pay for movement but you don’t pay for stability, sooner or later, you’ll get what you pay for.

All predictions guaranteed or your money back...