The Catch-22 Facing Academia and the Tech Sector in the War for Top Talent

Academia and the tech sector are in a war for top technical talent. As well-funded tech companies continue to poach professors and graduate students, each sector faces crucial questions that may dictate their future relationship and long-term success. This article explores strategies that Bellevue College has employed to attract and retain top technical faculty.
8 min read

In a red-hot job market, academia faces increasingly stiff competition for top technical instructors.

While technology companies like Alphabet, Amazon.com, and Microsoft continue to compete with each other for the best and brightest technical talent, they have also taken the fight to colleges and universities. Tenured professors and graduate students on track for lives in the academy are being courted by tech giants offering six figure salaries and the freedom to pursue research with virtually limitless funding.

For industries reliant on cutting edge technology, from the automotive industry to the cell phone industry and beyond, stiff competition for talent has become a fact of life. This stems partially from an imbalance between supply and demand: there are simply not enough talented technical experts to go around. Though computer science PhDs have more than doubled since 2000, they still represent only 4 percent of the total doctoral degrees awarded on a yearly basis. With relatively few technical PhDs in the job market, companies engage in an arms race to offer the highest salaries and best benefits.

Most colleges and universities – particularly those without large endowments, such as community and technical colleges – simply cannot match the resources and benefits offered by their private sector competitors.

The relative unevenness of the playing field sets the talent tug-of-war between higher education and the private sector apart from the rest. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state funding for public two and four-year colleges has declined $9 billion, adjusting for inflation, between 2008 and 2017. Meanwhile, salaries and research budgets for large tech companies have skyrocketed.

This dynamic sets up a catch-22 that may harm tech companies in the long-run: To continue innovating, tech companies need top technical talent, but such talent may become increasingly scarce as tech companies poach academic faculty. Most colleges and universities – particularly those without large endowments, such as community and technical colleges – simply cannot match the resources and benefits offered by their private sector competitors.

Still, solutions exist for colleges and universities willing to think outside the box. This article profiles one such solution implemented by groups at Bellevue College (BC), a four-year community college in Bellevue, Washington. Through relying on freelancers and industry practitioners, in addition to conventional professors, Bellevue College provides students with traditional coursework, practical knowledge, and pipelines for employment.

Understanding Bellevue College’s “Perfect Storm”

Like most colleges and universities nationwide, Bellevue College – Washington state’s largest community college and third largest institution of higher learning – faces an imbalance between its demand for top technical faculty and the compensation it can offer.

For BC, the problem became particularly acute in the years following the 2008 financial crisis, as state and federal funding for education dramatically decreased. Initially, these cuts were partially offset by increased enrollments, since many laid-off workers attended community colleges to obtain new skills as they searched for their next jobs. But as the labor market rebounded and enrollments normalized, community colleges came under heavy financial pressure.

“The four-year universities have a lot of other funding sources – such as significant donations and endowments – that community colleges don’t have,” says Jody Laflen, who serves as the Dean of the Institute of Business and Information Technology and oversees many of BC’s technical degree programs. “We’re not a research institution, so a lot of grants aren’t available to us. We really have to look at other funding sources and get creative.”

During the same period, technology companies flourished in Washington state. Seattle-based companies like Amazon.com, Microsoft, Tableau Software, and many others grew rapidly, expanding their technological ambitions, engineering teams, and R&D budgets.

Laflen says that the decrease in education funding combined with Seattle’s technology company renaissance has created a “perfect storm” for colleges like BC. Students increasingly want to gain technical skills, but the institution has limited resources to attract many top faculty.

“There are a lot of tech jobs that pay extremely well and employers eager to hire local talent. So, we’ve launched programs, like our BAS in Information Systems and Technology, to meet that need. The challenge has been attracting, and keeping, faculty when they could earn more actually working in the field,” Laflen says. “Trying to recruit people away from the tech sector to teach is extremely tricky.”

Seattle’s cost of living, which is anywhere from 50 to 80 percent above the national average, compounds the problem further.

“Many faculty can’t afford to live near the college,” Laflen says. “We need people who live nearby, and we’ve been forced to think outside the box. How are we going to get people with significant industry experience to come teach our students and train them effectively?”

A National Problem with a Neighborhood Solution

In 2014, Laflen discovered a possible solution in an unexpected place. While perusing Nextdoor – a social networking service for neighborhoods – Laflen noticed a number of former technology industry veterans engaged in online community discussions.

“I realized that many of these people were retired, near the college, and had worked in tech. All of a sudden, a light bulb went off in my head,” Laflen says. She started posting BC’s adjunct professorship openings on her neighborhood’s Nextdoor page and saw positive results. Through posting positions on Nextdoor, Laflen and her colleagues have attracted both adjunct and full-time faculty with deep industry experience.

“Having professors with these kinds of professional backgrounds is so helpful to the students and to their success.”

It hasn’t always been easy. Laflen says that she and her team have had trouble finding faculty in certain subject areas, such as cybersecurity and network administration. Still, their approach has proven successful in other areas, as faculty in application development, programming, and digital marketing have come to BC through postings on Nextdoor and other similar sites.

Attracting industry veterans as professors, Laflen says, has yielded clear benefits for BC’s students. In addition to providing first-hand, real world perspectives on academic subject matter, they have helped establish recruitment pipelines with tech companies in the Seattle area. From connecting students and helping to forge internship partnerships with their previous employers to helping students navigate the interview process, these industry veterans have brought their past experience to bear on their roles as professors.

“Because we are a workforce motivated program, our mission is really to get students into the workplace,” Laflen says. “Having professors with these kinds of professional backgrounds is so helpful to the students’ success.”

Laflen says that hiring retired industry veterans has also increased faculty diversity. This is a particularly significant issue in the tech sector, which is often criticized for its relative lack of women and ethnic minorities.

“Getting more women, getting more underrepresented minority faculty into the classroom is very important,” Laflen says. “We want to have faculty that reflect the diversity of our students.”

Though Laflen’s neighborhood-centric solution remains a work-in-progress, she is optimistic that it will continue to lead to positive outcomes for the college, its students, and for the retired industry veterans themselves.

“A lot of retired people want to give back to the community, and they find teaching an enriching experience” Laflen says. “We’re really pleased with the progress of this strategy, and we’re definitely going to continue to do that.”

New Solutions and New Horizons

Going forward, Laflen hopes to find other ways of enlisting the help of industry experts in the classroom. BC’s partnership with the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) stands as one avenue that may lead current tech executives to join their retired former colleagues, at least part-time, at the college.

The WTIA holds events that bring together leaders from education, government, and industry to solve some of their most difficult mutual challenges. At a recent event, Laflen says, attendees were tasked with figuring out how to best develop a mutually beneficial relationship between companies and colleges, whereby executives would work part-time as professors. “This initiative is just getting off the ground, but it looks promising,” Laflen says. “Ultimately, it’s a good way for industries to participate in solving an issue critical to their continued growth, and it gives them a good pool of talent to draw from.”

Laflen also hopes other areas of the college facing competition from the private sector, such as the health sciences and nursing departments, embrace using industry veterans as professors. These industries and others will likely continue to put pressure on institutions of higher learning to attract and retain top faculty and graduate students. While academia has yet to discover a panacea for this issue, Bellevue College’s strategies may provide an instructive template for colleges and universities willing to experiment in the ongoing war for top talent.

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