A New Workforce Era at Duke
Nearly 21,500 new staff and faculty have been hired at Duke since the pandemic
“Duke was the only school that I left and thought, ‘Wow, I would love to come here,’” Salem said.
In late 2022, Salem returned to Duke as the Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian and Vice Provost of Library Affairs, where he oversees six libraries and a collection of 8.5 million volumes.
“I wasn’t actively on the market because I was very happy at Michigan State,” said Salem, former dean of libraries at Michigan State University. “But when the opportunity at Duke came up, I remembered advice I’d gotten to always go for your dream job.”
Salem is among the 21,401 new staff and faculty Duke University and Duke University Health System have hired since the beginning of 2020 – a figure that represents nearly half of the workforce. Given the scale of research, education and health care operations, Duke has traditionally had a high number of annual hires. But the number of new employees in recent years has trended up, with most hires refilling positions opened by departures or retirements.
The upheaval caused by COVID-19 led to widespread change in how, why, and where many Americans work. Work location flexibility and a reexamination of individual priorities have contributed to an increased number of workers across the country changing jobs since 2020.
While Duke’s job turnover rate is lower than the average rate predicted for U.S. employers, Duke has had to reimagine how to attract and retain top talent in a competitive landscape, while defining pieces of its workplace culture that must endure.
“Duke has a long history of being able to reinvent itself, but as we reinvent ourselves, we still have to stay true to who we are fundamentally,” said Antwan Lofton, vice president for Duke Human Resources. “Our core missions are to serve our patients, educate our students and create a workforce free from discrimination. While our workforce is changing, we need to make sure that Duke remains the top destination for talented people who want to be part of this important work.”
For employees such as Salem, who was drawn to Duke by the opportunities offered, and for staff and faculty who have chosen to stay, each person has a story of why, during a time of transition, Duke is where they belong.
Recruiting the Best
Duke University Environmental Services Utility Worker Jay Royal finds plenty to appreciate during his 3-11:30 p.m. shift keeping the Brodhead Center clean. He loves the youthful energy of students, the camaraderie with colleagues, and the salmon and mashed potatoes from Sprout, an eatery in the Brodhead Center.
Housekeepers rank sixth among the most-hired positions across Duke since 2020. Royal became one of them in April 2022 when, after working for two months in a temporary position, he was offered a full-time role. It was the second time that the Durham-born Royal, has worked at Duke. He worked in housekeeping in 2015 but left Duke for another role. In the years since, benefits from other employers fell short of what Duke offered, he said.
“I was praying to get back here,” said Royal, who cherishes Duke’s time off and retirement plan benefits.
Royal knew what made Duke a special place to work but making that case to other candidates in the post-pandemic landscape isn’t as simple since the competition for talent has intensified in recent years. According to Duke Human Resources, the number of overall hires Duke made last year represents a 32 percent increase compared to 2017.
In addition to housekeeping, other job areas at Duke that have seen the most hires include nursing and research-related roles.
Denise Motley, assistant vice president for Duke Human Resources, Central Recruitment and Staffing, said that a desire for flexible work locations and the emergence of fully remote work forces Duke to vie with other employers from across the nation for candidates.
“There’s a whole new level of competition,” said Motley, whose team of recruiters has expanded to address hiring needs.
Duke isn’t alone in welcoming a high number of new faces. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were roughly 10.3 million hires made in the education and health services field in 2022. That’s up from roughly 8.6 million hires in 2019.
“That trend is up across the board, among all types of positions, from administrators to non-exempt staff members,” said Andy Brantley, president and CEO of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR). “It’s true for all employers, but especially for higher education, we are in a recruitment and retention crisis.”
Perhaps nowhere at Duke is the challenge of recruiting and retaining team members greater than in nursing and clinical support roles, which are among the positions that have seen the highest number of voluntary departures and new hires since the pandemic. This is a national crisis, as a 2022 national survey by the American Nurses Association shows that 52 percent of nurses are considering leaving their position because of stress and burnout.
Duke University Health System is focused on ways of supporting team members who have been working on the front lines throughout the pandemic.
Rhonda Brandon, Duke University Health System chief human resources officer and senior vice president, said that, with a health system workforce that is 60 percent millennial or Gen Z, the desire for more flexibility, clearer pathways to advancement and competitive wages make it more challenging to find and keep talent.
To counter those trends, Duke has increased its minimum wage and invested in salaries of front-line staff; expanded the Employee Tuition Assistance Program, including shortening the eligibility waiting period; enhanced clinical ladders to support growth; and strengthened workplace safety by increasing the security presence and adding weapons detection systems across its hospitals. Brandon said Duke is also working on ways to redesign and simplify team members’ work to reduce stress and burnout.
“We want our team members to have joy in their work and to feel valued, seen and heard,” Brandon said. “We want everyone to know that they matter and they belong here as we work together to deliver extraordinary care.”
Aastha Baral, a clinical nurse III in Duke Regional Hospital’s mother-baby unit, knows she belongs at Duke.
Baral joined the Duke Regional staff in 2019 after working at other hospitals in North Carolina. In addition to a generous retirement savings plan offered by Duke, Baral was attracted to opportunities to grow professionally.
With help from Duke’s RN Tuition Assistance Program, which covers up to 90 percent of tuition for eligible Duke nurses attending the Duke University School of Nursing, Baral will earn her Master of Science in Nursing degree in 2024.
Beyond the tangible benefits, Baral said the warm and welcoming culture of Duke Regional Hospital makes her want to stay. She can’t go far in the hospital’s corridors without a greeting from a colleague. Even under masks, smiles are commonplace.
The tight-knit spirit shined through in February of 2022, when Baral and her husband, Anup, welcomed their daughter, Maeve. While pandemic safety protocols made an office baby shower impossible, Baral received cards and flowers while on maternity leave from the Duke Regional colleagues who wanted to celebrate her growing family.
“There’s a good culture here. I have a good manager, a good support system and great coworkers,” she said.
“I also love the work.”
Fostering Duke Culture
While Dr. Althaf Hussain joined the Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI) as senior director of product development in late 2022, he’d long known about the DHVI’s team-first culture and the science it produces.
While working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) years ago, Hussain got to know DHVI Director Dr. Barton Haynes, a pioneering HIV researcher. During the pandemic, Hussain, then working for a Triangle-based pharmaceutical firm, saw how DHVI scientists worked together to confront a quickly evolving novel coronavirus.
Since its founding in 1990, DHVI has been defined by teams of immunologists, computational biologists, structural biologists, virologists and biochemists using open minds and innovative approaches to overcome hurdles. Hussain wanted to be a part of that collaborative spirit.
“To be where I can enable the ideas of brilliant scientists is a rare thing,” said Hussain, who shepherds potential vaccines from lab to clinical trial. “It’s a fantastic opportunity.”
No matter how defined a team’s culture is, maintaining it in a time of shifts is a challenge. Due to replacing voluntary departures and growth from new projects – many related to COVID-19 – roughly a quarter of DHVI’s 300 team members have been hired since 2020.
Thomas Denny, chief operating officer of DHVI, said the institute has tried to nourish its interconnected nature through staff-led team-building events and healthy lines of communication between staff and leadership. He said that ensuring new hires share Hussain’s appreciation of collaboration is an essential piece of keeping the synergistic spirit intact.
“No one person can do it,” Denny said. “We have to be aligned.”
Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, senior associate dean of Executive Programs and the James Vincent Professor of Leadership at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, said that it’s important for employers to introduce new hires to the culture of their organization as soon as possible.
By understanding the values, beliefs and expectations, new employees will have a better chance to thrive, Rosette said. But it’s also useful to let new employees have a say in shaping culture moving forward.
“An organization’s culture must be accommodating, and perhaps even somewhat malleable, when large shifts in its workforce take place,” Rosette said. “This does not imply that the core values and beliefs of an organization should change. It does suggest that the way those values are implemented may need to evolve as new faces arrive in the organization.”
Post-Pandemic College Life
Finding a balance between embracing existing culture and moving fresh ideas forward is something Duke’s new employees must consider.
In August 2022, Sara Pratt Peacock, associate dean of students and director of DukeReach, joined Duke’s Office of Student Affairs, which supports over 16,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students.
Last year, Student Affairs welcomed 94 new staff members, mostly in dining, housekeeping, student health care, and venue and event operations roles.
Peacock leads DukeReach, a student case management program that connects students to on- and off-campus resources that help them navigate challenges. For the previous nine years, Peacock led a similar student case management program that she helped start at Coastal Carolina University.
“I was very familiar with DukeReach; it was really a pioneer in this field,” Peacock said. “The opportunity to work at a place as distinguished as Duke doesn’t happen every day. And with my familiarity with DukeReach specifically, and my appreciation for everything it has contributed to the field, I felt like this was a great fit.”
Peacock has worked on getting to know Duke’s student culture by volunteering at campus events such as National Coming Out Day and the move-in weekend party on West Campus, and meeting with students and colleagues at hubs such as the Bryan Center Plaza.
On nice days, she might bring her bike to work to familiarize herself with Duke’s geography while pedaling between West Campus and her East Campus office in the Crowell Building.
And while she’s getting used to where she is, Peacock is exploring where her team’s work can go. As post-pandemic college life comes into focus with different challenges and new opportunities to connect, Peacock is looking forward to seeing how DukeReach can evolve.
“It’s exciting to work in higher ed, and at Duke, at a time when there’s a lot of change,” Peacock said. “It’s an opportunity to be creative and maybe build something new.”
Note: For this story, Working@Duke asked new Duke staff and faculty members to submit their photos. We received 525 headshots, several of which are used in the collages above.