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Employee retention improving at WCU

More employees are leaving their positions than prior to the pandemic, but the spike in departures seen in fiscal year 2022 has fallen in 2023. WCU graph More employees are leaving their positions than prior to the pandemic, but the spike in departures seen in fiscal year 2022 has fallen in 2023. WCU graph

The massive employee turnover  Western Carolina University has seen over the past two years is now trending downward, but the university is still parting ways with more employees than was the norm before 2020.

“We’re still up from where we were prior to coming out of COVID, but things seem to be moving in the right direction,” WCU Vice Chancellor for Human Resources Cory Causby told the Board of Trustees Academic Affairs and Personnel Committee June 8.

Between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023 — June numbers are projected and will become final later this month — WCU recorded 148 voluntary turnovers. The term is used when an employee leaves because they want to, not because they’ve been fired or reached retirement. While that’s nearly 50% higher than the prior four-year average of 100.5 annual voluntary turnovers, it’s 26.7% lower than the highwater mark of 202 set in the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

Of the last 12 months, 10 months saw voluntary turnover totals at or below those recorded the previous year. In February and April, voluntary turnovers came in below the four-year average as well.  

“That’s encouraging to me,” Causby told trustees. “I’d like to continue to see that going down.”

Turnover is down across the board, but the rate of decrease varies among different types of employees.

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Staff employees who are exempt from the State Human Resources Act of North Carolina — mostly professional, salaried positions that do not receive overtime — bounced back the strongest. The 44 voluntary separations recorded in 2022-2023 was just 6.7% over the four-year average of 41.25 and down 41.3% from the 2021-2022 fiscal year, when 75 such departures were recorded.

Faculty turnover saw the slowest rebound — the 31 turnovers recorded in 2022-23 were just 11.4% less than the 35 that occurred in 2021-2022, and more than double the four-year average of 14.25.

In the middle were staff members who fall under the State Human Resources Act. The 73 voluntary turnovers within this group during 2022-2023 was 20.7% less than the 92 recorded in 2021-2022 but still 62.2% higher than the four-year average of 45 turnovers.

WCU is not alone in its difficulty retaining employees — or in its seeming progress reversing the trend. While 2020 saw historically low turnover as people sought to hang on to whatever stability was available during the pandemic’s initial onslaught, rates surged  across the University of North Carolina System in 2021. System staff had pointed to inflation, stagnant salaries, childcare challenges and the so-called “Great Resignation” that swept the nation following the pandemic as contributors to the trend.

“WCU’s reduction in voluntary turnover rates as compared to FY22 appears to be consistent with what is being seen across the UNC System,” Causby said in an email. “Over the past year WCU’s retention efforts have included significant investments in faculty and staff salaries and resources for mental health and wellbeing.”

In an employee survey conducted in 2022, WCU faculty and staff expressed high satisfaction  compared to other UNC institutions, coming in third in overall positive responses among 17 institutions surveyed. However, in response to a question asking for reasons they might consider leaving their job, 73% of respondents said they’d think about it for a more competitive salary, while 32% said better work/life balance or better opportunities for advancement would make it worth contemplating.

While faculty and staff received a combined 6% raise  in the 2021 and 2022 state budgets, even this unprecedented amount fails to offset inflation of 9.4% that occurred between November 2021 and May 2023, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator . The 2023 state budget has yet to be finalized.

Even before the pandemic, salaries at WCU were lagging. A 2021 analysis  by WCU business professor Sean Mulholland, who is now director of the Center for Study of Free Enterprise, showed that inflation-adjusted salaries at WCU reached below negative 8% between 2010 and 2019. 

Despite the challenges, Causby said WCU has had better luck with hiring in recent months than it has over the last couple years.

“We’ve been more effective at hiring over the last six to 12 months than we were the previous 12 months,” he told trustees. “Our pools have increased, the quality of the pools have increased, and so it’s been really encouraging in that regard.”

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