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November 23, 2016

New HR head to look at recruiting, retention, technology, pay levels

Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson

Since joining the University as associate vice chancellor for Human Resources on July 1, Cheryl Johnson has seen the challenges ahead. First among them: the silver tsunami. During every year since 2011, and projected to last through 2030, 10,000 baby boomers will be turning 65: some of them will be retiring; others will continue to work.

Says Johnson: “We anticipate there is going to be attrition. How do you continue so that boomers still feel engaged but yet you source people” — search and find the right new hires — “to come and work beside the boomers and feel welcome as well?”

That conundrum crops up because many of the new Pitt employees will be millennials, and studies suggest that millennials are looking for different things than boomers from their employers and their overall careers.

“I don’t know that this is necessarily a fact,” Johnson counters. But she has observed that millennials may not be interested in scanning long job descriptions, so she will be looking at using social media and other short verbal takes to communicate more effectively with them.

“I am told millennials come into an organization not necessarily with the thought that they are going to be with an organization for 30 years,” she added. “How do you engage them with the thought that, if they can give you five good years, that’s a victory?”

Indeed, for all employees, she says, one of her main tasks will be: “How do we create a welcoming climate?”


As she sat down with the University Times for her first interview, Johnson noted that she still is introducing herself to other University officials, including deans and Pitt’s business officers.
The University received 56,000 applications last year for about 640 positions, Johnson reports, which means “we are an employer who can still attract talent.” Yet finding the right person for a particular job nonetheless may be challenging, she said: “We have a long way to go, but we know we have to source talent differently if we want to get the talent.”

For instance, she says, HR personnel will be seeking candidates “who might not be actively looking for a position and really attract them to the University.” These are so-called “passive candidates” who may be sought as prospects for job openings that don’t yet exist. If someone makes an impressive presentation at a conference, for example, an HR rep in attendance should seek that person’s business card and direct appropriate Pitt openings to their attention when the openings occur.

Better use of social media as a recruitment tool also may attract better candidates, she adds.

In addition, “How do we get to the internal talent?” Johnson asks. “And how do we create job families and career ladders within the University … so you don’t necessarily need to change organizations” to advance your career? Under such circumstances, she says, employees may stay longer at Pitt.

At the same time, she says, the University needs to maintain accessibility and affordability for students, and streamlining HR processes to contain costs will be part of that effort.


Benefits are a top tool for employee retention, of course, and she praises the work of John Kozar, assistant vice chancellor for Benefits, and his office: “I think that team has done an amazing job in making sure we have a rich benefit program … and also managing cost containment.”

But her office intends to compare Pitt salary levels to peer institutions to determine how Pitt’s base-pay levels stack up. “We’ve not really benchmarked our jobs since 2000, so it’s time to do that again,” she says. In addition, Johnson’s team will be looking at instituting new development training and programs for employees “so people feel that they will grow” and develop leadership skills at Pitt.

She also sees “tons of opportunities to leverage enabling technology.” At her last university, Kansas State, where she was vice president for human capital services, job applicants could apply for employment using a smartphone or iPad. Pitt could offer its job hopefuls the same convenience, she believes, and also extend such mobile technology to benefits enrollment for current employees.

“Data analytics is something we haven’t used as fully,” she adds. How long does it take to fill specific types of positions at Pitt? “I would not be able to tell you that right now,” she says. Does one source of potential new hires work better than another? What is the turnover rate for particular positions, and why do people leave or stay? These are important questions that data analytics may answer and help HR redirect its hiring practices, she says.


Other future HR moves for employee retention may include “a complement of work-life balance benefits,” she says, perhaps including job sharing and flexible work spaces and hours, “as long as we have core hours and are meeting the needs of students and the community,” she cautions.

And of course diversity in hiring, and creating a welcoming work climate, especially during the provost’s Year of Diversity at Pitt, will continue to be an emphasis for her department. She’ll be working with everyone from the Staff Association Council and the unions to Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Pamela Connelly, she says, to make certain these principles can be applied to University hiring.

“I don’t want to make any quick judgments,” she says when asked about new areas where diversity might need to be addressed in the workforce. “I think there’ll be more to come in that area.

“When you have diversity in faculty and staff,” she says, “it just really enhances the academic experience, the way in which we present curriculum, the way we challenge students to look at the world through a global lens.”

—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 7

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