Wheaton College’s unfilled staff positions reached an all-time high of nearly 60 open positions this past summer as significant numbers of employees quit during the COVID-19 pandemic to seek different career opportunities. More than halfway through the fall semester, around 40 positions remain unfilled, including the Assistant Controller, two Fleet Service Mechanics, and the Graduate School Marketing Manager.
The College’s high staff turnover is reflective of a nationwide trend. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that the US labor force participation rate, which is the percentage of civilians 16 and older in the US who are working or are looking for work, has decreased from 63.3% in February 2020 to 61.6% in October 2021. This represents almost three million fewer Americans working than at the beginning of the pandemic, one of the largest 12-month declines since World War II according to the Pew Research Center
Anthony Klotz, an organizational psychologist who teaches at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School, coined the term the “Great Resignation” to describe the significant increase of people quitting their jobs. He argues that many employees feel a newfound freedom to switch jobs, retire or withdraw from the labor force entirely.
In an email to the Record, Director of Human Resources Karen Tucker and other Wheaton HR professionals cited a variety of causes behind the unusually high turnover rates among College faculty and staff.
“Departing colleagues have provided a range of reasons including enhanced career opportunity, relocation, desire to work fully remote, and so on,” the email read. “While none have been directly attributable to the pandemic, it’s likely that limited opportunity during the pandemic has created some pent up demand for those ready for a new career challenge.”
Jeremy Cook, an associate professor of economics, pointed to recent federal stimulus packages as another potential cause behind the sluggish labor market. During the pandemic, the federal government provided millions of Americans with direct cash payments and expanded unemployment benefits.
“The recent stimulus packages have provided a longer and larger cushion for a lot of workers that typically hasn’t been the case in prior recessions,” Cook said.
Shifts in worker preferences have also roiled the labor market. “Many workers are re-evaluating their work-life balance, their preference for remote work, the risks they are willing to take, and flexibility in scheduling,” Cook said.
Before the pandemic, Alley Kammer ‘15,‘19 worked as the communication and events manager at Wheaton’s Center for Vocation and Career (CVC). Now she works as a floral designer and project manager for Bloome Floral, a florist in the Wheaton area. Kammer said the pandemic forced her to re-examine her values about work. “[I]t became clear [during the pandemic] that it was the time to take a leap and try something new,” Kammer said.
Kammer had worked part-time as a volunteer at Bloome since 2019. “Joining full-time became the ‘one day’ dream,” Kammer said, “but we had not been able to seriously consider that transition until post-pandemic with the increase in events after some of the restrictions were lifted.”
Kammer joined Bloome as a full-time employee this month after leaving Wheaton at the end of October. She described how her time at the floral company has transformed her views about work.
“My idea of compensation expanded beyond monetary compensation, and towards other ways my life could be enriched by my work and newfound time,” Kammer said. “I had an increasing desire to take a hard look at the ways in which I was spending my time and energy, and especially after such a difficult few years, my desire to surround myself with beautiful things and a rhythm of life and community that made sense for me became paramount.”
Kammer’s experience leaving the CVC has been mirrored in many other departments on campus, leaving some offices struggling to fill open positions.
According to Wheaton’s hiring portal, the Facilities department is currently hiring for nine positions. In a phone interview, Director of Facilities Jay Bieszke said the facilities team has had more departures in 2020-2021 than in any single year dating back to 2015.
“Facilities generally has an aging workforce with several retirement-eligible personnel already,” Bieszke said. The pandemic has exacerbated this trend.
In an effort to fill positions, Tucker and the HR department have posted job descriptions on LinkedIn, Indeed, and ZipRecruiter and also industry-specific job boards and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities website.
Another way the College is hoping to attract applicants is through the expansion of the Employee Referral Program, a $500 bonus given to Wheaton employees if they refer someone for an open position and that person is hired and stays in their position for at least 90 days. Previously, only a few positions were eligible. Now the program is offered to all staff members.
In the past, said Tucker in her email, “these referrals have led to the filling of roles with great candidates.” They are hopeful the program’s expansion will lead to a similar increase in applications.
The College has also recently contracted with Gallagher, an Illinois-based consulting firm that has worked extensively in higher education, to help the college update its staff compensation program. This will include updating all job descriptions as well as performing an external market salary survey to assess staff pay ranges, according to the HR department. Although this study is not directly tied to the labor shortage and Wheaton has yet to make changes to the compensation structure, Tucker said they will continue to evaluate it.
Until positions can be filled, some Wheaton departments are relying on student workers. Bieszke said students have helped with grounds’ maintenance this year. Even so, he said, “the times students can work are not always best-suited to the need,” and therefore finding full-time staff remains vital.
Though the labor shortage will be the reality for the foreseeable future, Cook said the economy will eventually correct to a new equilibrium point. He argues companies, and institutions like Wheaton, will likely start to either increase their employees’ wages or increase their benefits, and eventually workers will be enticed to take open jobs.
“As the market wage goes up, people are more likely to enter the labor market,” said Cook. “Or, if firms are unable to do that, they might try to substitute towards more capital-intensive processes [processes that require significant investment in machines and factories, instead of workers, to produce], especially if we see people just realizing they prefer a better work-life balance and labor force participation remains low.”