Practice Area Column
International Students and Scholars

Eight Tips for Recruiting and Retaining ISSS Staff

During a period of hiring uncertainty, it’s critical to find the right people—and keep them for the long term.
There are several areas to keep in mind in hiring and retaining ISSS staff. Illustration: Shutterstock

The past several years have been difficult for most people, and they have been particularly stressful for international student and scholar services (ISSS) professionals. Restrictive immigration measures during the Trump administration heightened anxiety among students and scholars and increased pressure on staff. “We were squeezed in the middle without a lot of autonomy and power,” says Julie Wilbers, director of international and student scholar services at Vanderbilt University. “And then COVID hit.”

As in many other areas of the field, professionals in ISSS took stock of their status. Many realized they had other options—and pursued them. Those who remain are dispirited, overall.

A survey of 323 ISSS professionals conducted for a NAFSA 2022 conference session reveals low levels of job satisfaction.  No matter where they rank in the ISSS office—from manager to social/cultural programmer—everyone agrees that their job satisfaction has room for improvement.

The study indicates that dissatisfaction is higher among junior staff. For managers and mid-level professionals seeking to recruit and staff at that level, overcoming that challenge is critical. Here are eight tips to help managers recruit and retain staff.

1. Look for a good long-term fit.

During a time when hiring managers struggle to find good candidates, finding the right fit is more important than ever. Skill sets are only one indicator of success. Employers should also evaluate how a candidate will grow once hired.

“I ask candidates, in addition to the knowledge and skill sets you bring to the position, what is your unique talent,” says Ivor Emmanuel, director of the Berkeley International Office at the University of California-Berkeley. “I look at the skills of the existing team and ask, what kind of person can we add to make the team stronger? Can I see this person performing at a more advanced level? Do they have a long-term interest in this field?”

2. Be upfront about what the job entails.

Successful recruiting begins with honesty. Painting too rosy a picture of what it means to work as a student adviser only sets the candidate up for disappointment once they start.

“I tell people our offices are production units in many ways,” says Laura Buhs, immigration services manager, ISSS, at the University of Colorado, Denver. “People have to have realistic expectation of that, combined with the great piece of working with international students and scholars.”

“ISSS leaders need to be clear about what the roles are by being starkly transparent with who you’re interviewing,” agrees Moroni Flake, CEO of English3, a company that provides English proficiency instruction and assessment. “People aren’t afraid of challenges.” If they are, it’s best for candidates and hiring managers to know before moving forward.

3. Have an onboarding plan.

First impressions count, and a chaotic beginning is not a good start for a new employee. “Have a schedule,” recommends Buhs. “It doesn’t have to plot out every hour but have a clear idea of what you expect them to focus on. Schedule in the training.” Buhs also does a 90-day check in with employees to see what their challenges are and where they feel they need to learn more.

Don’t neglect the bureaucratic aspect of the new job, either. Emmanuel says that every hiring manager should have a checklist for new hires that includes everything from setting up insurance benefits to creating an email account. New team members should meet with every other relevant staff member to learn what they do. “That’s a key aspect for success in the onboarding process,” he says. “It’s reassurance that your colleagues are going to help you succeed.”

4. Take the time to be a mentor.

One of the important findings of NAFSA’s ISSS employment survey was that many professionals never had anyone to guide them in their careers. “A common theme we heard is, ‘I never had a mentor,’” says Flake. “No one is helping them with the vision of where they see themselves 5 years from now.”

Helping people at the beginning of their careers in the field is especially important for retention. The longer someone is an ISSS professional, the likelier they are to remain one. “The sharpest churn is for those with fewer than 5 years,” says Flake. “If directors take on the responsibility of becoming mentors, then I think the career becomes far more sticky.”

5. Create a path for advancement.

Advancement—or the lack thereof—was one of the main drivers of dissatisfaction in the NAFSA survey. Nearly a third of advisers said that they were very unsatisfied with their opportunities for career progression.

Even more striking with the disconnect with their managers’ understanding of the problem. A mere seven percent of managers thought that advisers were very unsatisfied.

Ensuring that staff have an opportunity to advance is crucial for retaining staff. Emmanuel hires with an eye to moving someone up the career ladder rapidly.

“What I have decided to do in this labor market is hire at a more entry level and within a year, and generally after 6 months, promote to the next level position,” he says. That way, the staffer has some type of career progression and higher compensation early on, indicating that there is a real opportunity for advancement.

6. Understand that compensation matters.

Few people come to work in higher education for the paycheck. However, to remain competitive and retain staff, “we need to pay people what they’re worth,” says Wilbers.

“I think that ISSS professionals are underpaid given the amount of expertise and the skill sets they need,” she says. Indeed, the NAFSA survey shows that low pay contributes to a high level of job dissatisfaction.  

Wilbers says that managers need to make compensation an ongoing focus to support staff retention. “You have to constantly build a case for what you need to retain people,” she says. She recommends turning to human resources for support. “They can do a market analysis for equity reasons,” for example.

Such an analysis can also compare the work of ISSS staff to those in other departments to ensure that there is greater parity between similar work. “It doesn’t need to be a significant salary increase” to make a difference, she says. Moreover, the cost of staff turnover and the inefficiencies it leaves in its wake can justify better compensation. 

Buhs agrees. “Compensation is always an issue, and some smaller efforts can help,” she says. “One of my colleagues found a way to pay a small stipend if someone became the lead orientation person, for example.” That financial recognition for extra work sends a signal that the staff person’s work is tangibly valued.

7. Make your workplace as flexible as possible.

The NAFSA survey found that more than two-thirds of offices are now working on campus full-time or three to four days a week—but the majority of staffers preferred to be mostly remote.

“There’s significant dissatisfaction with university work policies,” says Flake. “If you are going to pay [staff] $40,000 a year and then have them commute two hours a day, it puts significant stresses on their lives.” He notes that the pandemic has shown that most work can be done effectively remotely; his own firm has been entirely virtual since 2008.

Increasing flexibility in work arrangements will contribute to employee satisfaction—and with it, retention. “The reality is there is a tight labor market, and we have to demonstrate maximum flexibility,” says Emmanuel. “Staff want to work from home, staff want to begin the day late and end late because they have to drop off a child at day care—all of these accommodations are things we have to make available to staff.”

If the ISSS office doesn’t do it, there are many workplaces that will. Emmanuel says he has had staff leave because they could work for companies where they would be entirely virtual. “I’ve seen universities that say everybody had to come back in the office, and they’re bleeding,” says Wilbers.

8. Remember what makes the profession fulfilling.

With so many challenges, it’s easy to lose sight of the reason why people enter the field in the first place. Despite all the stresses, ISSS professionals in the survey were very clear about a few things, says Buhs.

“We like our work, and we find meaning in it,” she says. “That’s a really great thing to have in a job and a career. And we like the people we work with.”

Finally, there are the students. “The people you are trying to help walk through your door and you get to meet them,” notes Buhs. “That’s what helps keep people in the job.” With some additional support from managers, many will spend their careers in ISSS.

About International Educator

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