The ‘great resignation’ created opportunities for TCU faculty and staff to help companies better serve employees.
AMID THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC, PEOPLE ACROSS THE U.S. QUIT THEIR JOBS IN RECORD NUMBERS. The pace of resignations had not been seen since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping track of the data.
Economists dubbed the phenomenon the “great resignation,” and they’ve cited everything from increased stimulus payments to changing attitudes toward work as plausible explanations.
Among people who left jobs in 2021, the majority said they quit because of low pay, scant opportunities for advancement or a feeling of disrespect, according to a 2022 survey from the Pew Research Center. The survey also found that those who quit and are now employed elsewhere are more likely to say their current job has more opportunities for advancement and better flexibility and work-life balance.
Universities like TCU, whose experts can approach the phenomenon from multiple angles, are in the middle of the discussion. Graduate programs at TCU’s Neeley School of Business can upskill and reskill people ready for a career change. Business faculty also consult with companies on best practices for managing employees and how to operate efficiently in a time of a fluctuating workforce.
Given TCU’s 826 faculty and 1,657 staff, the university is also an employer of workers with different skill sets. From researchers to landscapers, universities the size of TCU are especially exposed to workforce trends.
THE RIGHT FIT
Decades before the pandemic, management scholars had attempted to calculate the tipping point when an employee is no longer just threatening to leave but follows through.
Abbie Shipp, the M.J. Neeley Professor of Management and chair of the department of management and leadership, studies what makes an employee want to stay or leave a job. Her research shows that even a single event can create an environment where an employee feels pushed out of the organization; the trigger could be anything from a sudden leadership change to a slew of safety rules in the wake of the pandemic.
Such changes may cause employees to question whether they fit the new circumstances and culture.
People constantly evaluate their values and comfort level against whatever their employer is promising, such as a more inclusive work environment or different work hours, Shipp said. Her research is a qualitative exploration of how long-tenured professionals make sense of the alignment of work and values over time.
“The pandemic really did a number on us for how we perceive time itself. The structure of time went away when all of a sudden we didn’t have 8-to-5 days at work and started staying at home,” Shipp said. “I think that also contributed to burnout, and people started to really rethink how they were spending their time.”
In August 2022, Shipp conducted research for a company with a flexible-work policy that allowed employees to work from home. Employee respondents complained about the time they once spent on a commute. They lamented the time they used to spend getting ready for work and mentioned how much they now value using that time for other things.
“I think this reevaluation of time leads them to recraft their narrative,” Shipp said. “We’re always crafting and recrafting these stories in our head about how do we fit at work and is it a good fit or not? The pandemic itself made us question our values: Why am I doing this job?
“We’re now having these aha moments, these triggers. And what my research found was that when major triggers like the pandemic happen, it’s like a lightning bolt.”
A proper understanding of employees’ sense of fit, Shipp said, can help companies avoid turnover during turbulent times.
ADVICE FOR COMPANIES
A little over a year after the pandemic began, economists noted a rising job quit rate, as measured by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.
In January 2001, the seasonally adjusted quit rate was 2.4 percent; it was not surpassed until March 2021, when the quit rate reached 2.5 percent. According to the bureau’s statistics, this record was eclipsed in April 2021, when the quit rate stood at 2.8 percent; the current record is 3.0 percent, first reached in November 2021 and matched in December 2021.
Based on insights from a November 2021 survey by Predictive Index, the average cost of a single resignation is $11,372 per employee. The same survey showed that on average, turnover had totaled about 20 percent over the previous six months. For a firm with 1,000 employees, if 200 people left, the business would lose more than $2 million.
The employment shift is complicated by the fact that companies have an abundance of open jobs, Shipp said. “With a shortage of qualified employees, people had alternatives that they maybe didn’t have before, and so it was easy to change jobs.”
Fear of missing out on a better job also may be a factor, she said. “When you see other people quitting, you think, ‘Well, am I missing something?’
“You look at somebody else, and it kind of spurs your own thoughts about quitting. All of these things together created a perfect storm that led to this massive musical chairs of employment.”
To thwart turnover, Shipp said, employers should increase dialogue with employees to learn what they really want. Many employers make the mistake of creating one-size-fits-all policies based on assumptions about what people want.
“The question I had for a CEO and his top executive team was, ‘How much are you walking around on a daily basis?’ ”
Shipp said. “ ‘On a weekly basis, how much are you checking in with people, and how much are you asking your entire leadership team to do that?’
“Because what they’ll likely find is that in one department they need to implement a work-from-home policy, but in another department they need a more individualized approach. They may learn that some employees really want to come to the office because they like the energy of their co-workers.”
By increasing the open communication with rank-and-file workers, managers are better able to identify the early stages of burnout, Shipp said.
Yohna Chambers, TCU’s vice chancellor and chief human resources officer, said that as a large employer, TCU is subject to the same workforce trends that employers face in other industries.
Even more challenging is that a sizable portion of TCU’s employees are also students.
“We fully understand that our mission in HR is to serve the employees of TCU by providing a place of employment where individuals can grow, learn, be recognized, valued, appreciated, respected and heard so that these same employees can engage in their primary role of serving our students,” Chambers said. “If not for the students — current, alums and future — there would not be a TCU.”
Chambers said a unique aspect of a college campus is the presence of residential students.
“This limits the types of positions that are eligible for remote work and flexible scheduling,” she said. “To serve our students, most of our employees must be present on campus.
“We do not offer a remote education or generally provide instruction asynchronously. What’s important to note, however, is when campuses and employers closed in March 2020, our faculty quickly switched to online delivery to continue providing a valuable and meaningful educational experience for our students.”
Universities generally employ people who work in health care facilities, housing, police stations, power plants, financial resource offices and much more.
To address employee burnout, TCU’s human resources department created classes and a webpage with online resources for managing stress.
“Now is the time that people are afraid. They’re hurting; they’re stressed,” Chambers said. “We just wanted to make sure they know that their employer cares about them and they’re feeling supported.”
TCU now tries to maintain a flexible workplace policy. Depending on the department and role, the policy allows for flexible scheduling and rotating schedules. “This is something we had not done previously,” Chambers said. “And I will tell you, it is challenging for higher education when the expectation is to serve 11,000 students.”
HELPING WORKERS FIND NEW CAREERS
Daniel Pullin, TCU’s president and formerly the John V. Roach dean of the Neeley School of Business, said the school has experienced a spike in graduate enrollment over the past two years in response to adult learners seeking to prepare for a transformed world.
“We’re seeing workers who are deeper into their careers really take stock of their capabilities and interests and really reflect on how they want to live out the balance of their career,” Pullin said. “Oftentimes, that’s leading them to pursue lifelong education through any number of graduate executive education offerings.”
Pullin and Neeley’s leadership team monitor the marketplace and consult with corporate partners to craft programs to prepare students for industry needs. At the start of the pandemic, Pullin said, Neeley faculty built and launched a graduate program in business analytics, which is designed to give students the technical, competitive and financial skills to help companies leverage data for better decision-making. So far, more than 100 students have enrolled in the program.
TCU also became one of the first schools to offer a financial technology certificate, which teaches emerging topics like blockchain, cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence, all through a financial lens.
“The upshot of all of this,” Pullin said, “is that this transformation that’s running alongside the great resignation has further extended Neeley’s lead in job placements and starting salaries.”
Shipp’s analysis, TCU’s policy adjustments and Neeley’s enrollment success are case studies of a university’s ability to research, react to and reap benefits from a workforce trend. Given the cyclical nature of the economy and the probability of future seismic events, the university’s is a blueprint worth remembering.
BY JASON ROBERSON