Progression for Professional Service Staff in Higher Education

I have worked in several universities over the last 14 years now. Despite universities always claiming a commitment to education for all and developing their staff, in my experience they just don’t.

In universities, people are split into academic and non-academic roles – there are different pay scales and different terms and conditions.

In a university, academic staff have several paths for progression:

  • the teaching route – you can become a Fellow of the HEA, gain a PGCHE, and move from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer to Principle Lecturer to Professor
  • the admin/management route – from lecturer to team leader, Programme Director, Head of School, Dean, Pro-VC, VC
  • the research route – you can move from researcher to Reader, Research Fellow to Senior Research Fellow and Professor. You can measure the number and quality of your publications and your submission to REF

But if you work in a university and are not an academic, your lot is different.  There is no progression route except management.  Some professions within HE may have professional recognition (eg Finance AAT/ACCA qualifications, CIM, CIPD) but the effect on your role and pay scale may be minimal.

concrete stairs going nowhereAnd the rest of us do not have this option.  So you automatically go up the pay scale about three times and then that’s it.  You’re stuck.

Up or Out

No, for other professional service staff, your lot is to be employed in an ever narrowing role with no progression except to leave for another role, or the incredibly narrow route into management.

And the only way you’re going to move up in your niche area is if:

  • the department expands, a new supervisory role is created and so you’re in the right place at the right time
  • your manager moves on and you have a chance to apply for the job
  • you move to another institution

For the latter, then, the university loses the expertise you’ve built up over many years, and your future potential.

The middle one is dead man’s shoes.  Your manager probably got his/her opportunity to go up the ladder 10 years ago when the department was small and they promoted one of the 3 people working there at the time.  The chances of you getting the same opportunity now in a team of 15 is much lower.  Your manager has stayed in post for 10-20 years, and s/he’s not moving.  Are you really going to hang around on the offchance that you’ll perhaps be considered for the job in another 10 years or so, if it still exists?

And to go into management at all, someone at some point has to believe in you and allow you to practically develop your skills while in your current post, because guess what, one of the ‘essential criteria’ for getting the management job will be ‘must have successfully led a team of people for at least 2 years’.  It’s hard to demonstrate management skills when you’re not in a management position.  And it’s hard to get the management training until you’re in a management post.

And more importantly, what if you don’t want to go into ‘management’?  That route involves a particular skill set which requires both technical and people skills, training and ongoing commitment to development.  I’ve seen far too many managers without the people skills they need to do the job well.  They’ve gone into management because they were good in their narrow technical job and it’s the only progression option that’s available.  The damage poor managers do in an organisation can be immense.

Recognition and Reward

People want to be recognised for their work; they want to feel they are progressing, learning new skills and able to take on more.  Good managers will understand this and seek ways to ensure their staff are using all their skills, being recognised (a genuine ‘thank you’ goes a long way!) and getting opportunities to develop new skills.  If they’re canny they’ll be delegating part of their own role, freeing up time for themselves and everyone wins!  But be honest, how many managers are actually doing that for their employees?  If employee engagement rates are anything to go by, not many.

Most university HR departments understand that to retain good employees you need to offer ongoing training and development.  They have staff development policies in place and an appraisal system whereby at least twice a year an employee should be looking at their goals, achievements and future potential. But for me, despite this being enshrined in company policy (and having worked for several universities now) the appraisal is brushed over, signed off, then ignored and put away in a drawer somewhere never to be referred to again.

And so the employee moves on, because they’ve been left to slowly rot in a job which uses only a fraction of their skill set and doesn’t allow them to explore potential; they feel unvalued and unappreciated.  Or they stay on, because a job is a job, but disengage and go through the motions.  Either way, the company loses out on the talent they originally hired.

Progression Routes

For years I’ve been hearing a call from professional service colleagues for ways to formally recognise professional service staff.  I see far too many of these staff taking qualification after qualification (Masters, MBAs, PhDs) because that’s all that’s on offer.  But they’re not developing the skills they need for their job, progressing professionally or being rewarded for gaining these qualifications.

So let’s have a progression route that professional service staff can follow, just like the academic staff have.  One that allows them to feel that they are moving forwards, and yes, to get the opportunity to move onto different pay scales and take on additional responsibilities.  Because the skills that are being learned will enable better, more efficient working and the investment will soon pay for itself.

Develop and allow them to follow training paths to develop the skills they need to demonstrate for promotion to a higher grade.  You could train them in HE practices and how your own institution works.  But also think of all the ‘soft’ skills that nobody teaches you but that are vital to everyday working at any institution.  Here are a few I’ve studied over the past year just to give examples:

  • Teamwork
  • Time management
  • Communication skills
  • Critical thinking/problem solving etc
  • Technical skills (eg IT qualifications, social media techniques)
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Resilience
  • Stress management
  • Challenging conversations
  • Giving and receiving feedback
  • Influencing
  • Project management

And yes, leadership and management skills because these are needed at all levels.

Think of all the ways that these skills can be developed:  training (formal/informal, face-to-face/online), delegation, working on projects, secondment, shadowing, mentoring, coaching, cross-training (across silos), buddying, and the most important and never offered in my experience: feedback.

And yes, there could be a management track too, for those that want that route, that taught the skills needed before getting a management job for both academic and professional service staff. Thus, when promotion opportunities become available, an employer will have developed an internal pipeline of potential managers who are already prepped for success.

And just make sure that people don’t need to ask for their manager’s support to get on one of these tracks – don’t let managers hold employees back.  (What if the manager doesn’t understand the importance of developing their team? What if, even, the manager is threatened by subordinates learning new skills rather than grateful for the additional skills and resource?)

And yes, the risk is that you’re training up your employees to leave.  But if you don’t offer development opportunities they will either leave or disengage anyway.  Employees are in a much better position to train themselves now, with online learning opportunities widely and freely available. But the potential for loyalty and retention if you recognise learning and offer progression routes in-house is immense.

Come on universities!  Developing progression pathways and CPD is your bread and butter.  Try doing something for your professional service staff.  Recognise their skills and give them the same opportunity to progress that academic staff already have.


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