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EdTech’s Turnover Problem

What is the biggest challenge that colleges and universities face in working with edtech companies?

Does the answer have to do with features? User interfaces? Visibility and influence on the product roadmap? Support? API availability? Data accessibility and transparency? Uptime?

Well, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

But the real challenge that non-profit universities face with for-profit edtech companies is turnover.

The overall attrition rate in the industry is 13.2 percent. Turnover at e-learning companies is somewhat better (11.6 %) than in other sectors (gaming is 15.5%), but it is still high.

In almost every case, key personnel’s voluntary turnover is dramatically higher at edtech companies than at universities. One source I found (a dissertation from 2019) puts voluntary academic staff turnover at 3.7 percent. 

Now it is true that employees of for-profit companies, and especially tech companies, will always have higher turnover than at non-profit universities. The for-profit employment picture is more dynamic than the non-faculty academic labor market. Moving from company to company is typical and expected in tech, particularly among high-skilled and in-high demand roles.

In contrast to tech (and edtech), university people tend to stick around. Part of the long-tenures of higher ed people has to do with opportunities. There are likely not all that many similar university jobs to be had in a given region. Changing jobs in higher ed almost always involves moving. (We will see if this holds true post-pandemic if higher ed staff continues to work remotely).

Part of why higher ed people stick around has to do with mission. We identify with our institutions. This does not mean that higher ed people – and higher ed people working at the intersection of learning and technology – don’t move on to other universities. (Or move on to other non-profits, government, or companies). Only that we move infrequently.

When key people leave edtech companies, their knowledge of and relationships with university partners also walks out the door.

Colleges and universities move at a pace all their own. Decisions to partner with a company – say, an LMS provider or an OPM company, or a platform vendor – are almost always deeply considered. Non-profit/for-profit collaborations involve the input of a range of stakeholders on the university side. The culture of most schools supports the ideals of transparency and inclusivity. Authority is diffused, not centralized, meaning that broad and authentic relationships between schools and companies are essential for productive partnerships.

It takes a long time for the people who work at edtech companies to understand their potential and existing university partners. They need to keep track of a wide variety of players. Each constituency within a university matters. That knowledge, and the relationships that knowledge allows, can only be built over time.

That is why I’m constantly surprised that edtech companies do not do enough to invest in their people’s retention and growth. Every company says they do this, but very few companies do this effectively.

Part of the issue is that top leadership at edtech companies are almost always separated from the day-to-day work of relationship management. The c-suite does not participate in the unglamorous work of ongoing collaboration, coordination, and support. The value that edtech company professionals bring as holders of relationships with schools is under-appreciated, and therefore undervalued.

The leadership of edtech companies needs to internalize that their first priority should be serving and supporting their employees. If they do that job, then the company will be in a much better position to serve and support their university partners.

In practice, this means putting real resources and time and attention into employee growth and retention. There should be clear and available opportunities for promotion to positions of greater authority and responsibility. Every edtech company should offer generous education benefits, as the best situation is when employees are also students.

Edtech companies, in my experience, are at constant risk of creating an environment that can lead to employee burnout. The pace of work at edtech companies is fast. Productivity demands are high. Normative edtech work expectations may be a good short-term strategy to drive short-term profits, but it is a terrible strategy for long-term employee resilience and retention. Edtech companies would be much better off if they prioritized flexibility, sustainability, and growth opportunities for their people, over short-term deliverables.

It is also my experience that most edtech companies are thin on the ground when it comes to headcount. The lack of people means that existing edtech employees have to work long hours to keep everything going.

On the university side, we need to do a better job of communicating the importance of long-term relationships and long-term partners. We should be asking companies’ leadership that we work with what their philosophy and practices are around employee retention. It is okay to ask what the turnover rate is and what the company is doing to lower that figure.

The success of non-profit/for-profit partnerships – of universities working with companies – relies on personal relationships to a largely unappreciated degree.

The time for us to begin an open and critical conversation about the cost of high edtech employee turnover is now.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2021
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Wednesday, January 6, 2021