Want to Retain IT Staff? Start with Stay Interviews

stay interview
(Image credit: Mt. Diablo USD)

Whether database administrators, network analysts, or site technicians working directly with teachers and students, the increased reliance on technology demands dedicated and knowledgeable IT staff. Juxtaposed with a decrease in available applicants – more than 49% of public schools responding to a recent National Center for Educational Statistics reported at least one non-teaching staff vacancy – this is a recipe for staff and students being unable to reliably access technology tools when there is a shortage of tech staff.

Regardless of why shortages occur, retaining valuable employees who are already part of the team is a critical approach. Unfilled technology positions and high absentee rates leave help desk tickets unaddressed or delayed. Teachers who are unable to receive timely support for a malfunctioning projector or for connecting a laptop to the internet increases frustration and forces on-the-fly changes to great, tech-rich lesson plans. And if they can’t rely on their technology, they often give up, returning to low-tech learning experiences for students, further exacerbating learning loss. 

Taking the time to conduct stay interviews can be especially beneficial to a school district.

stay interview

(Image credit: Mt. Diablo USD)

How Stay Interviews Can Help 

Honoring the voices and contributions of staff is an important component of any equity initiative. To help learn why great staff stay, leaders in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District (MDUSD) Business Services Department have embarked on a series of stay interviews. Modeled after the traditional exit interview, we asked ourselves, “Why wait until great staff leave to find out how we can motivate them to stay?” 

During these interviews, small and large group discussions connect staff with department leaders to gain insights into what they like about their jobs and why they stay in the district (and what would make them leave). Suggestions to better recruit, welcome, and onboard minority employees are also gathered. 

Maximizing attractors and minimizing detractors is the name of the game–knowing what these are is the first step. 

The MDUSD Process 

Stay interviews are hosted after the work day in local restaurants with appetizers and a welcoming atmosphere. Including a half dozen department leaders and 20 to 30 employees, events incorporate low-stress but structured activities that anonymize and randomize participant feedback. 

During the 90 minutes, participants from IT and other Business Services departments consider questions that prompt discussion and written responses, such as:

  • What do you love about your job? 
  • If there was something you could change about your job, what would it be? 
  • Why do you stay in this position/district? 
  • When you think back to your onboarding, is there anything that could have been different to improve the transition onto our Business Services team? 
  • What is one thing your leaders are doing really well to make you feel welcomed, appreciated, and valued? 
  • If you identify as part of a "minority" (person of color, LGBTQ+, etc), do you feel welcome in MDUSD? Follow up: What could MDUSD do to better recruit people from under-represented groups and/or make them feel more welcomed and cared for? 

Chart paper on walls, sticky notes on tables, and a low-stress environment allow participants to contribute honest answers.  

stay interview

(Image credit: Mt. Diablo USD)

What We Learned and Next Steps 

One of our ‘Aha’s’ was that open, effective communication is what keeps our employees engaged and feeling like they are part of the organization. For instance, our IT staff reports: “Keep us informed of what is happening in our department and bigger district news, even if you think we might not be interested.” 

IT team members say they stay with our district for various reasons, including the proximity to home, outstanding benefits, the belief that they make a difference, and their overall joy and satisfaction of helping our students and staff. They acknowledge that historically their colleagues in the IT department have not been as diverse or representative of our student population as they would like, and have offered suggestions as to how to hire with an equity mindset and to intentionally hire qualified staff who look like the students and staff they serve.

Best Practices for Facilitating Stay Interviews 

- Start by selecting participants who have been in the district for three to nine years. These individuals are still fairly new, have a greater ability to move to another district, and may not be fully vested into the retirement system. If there aren’t a lot of staff in this experience range, include others from operations departments to ensure a safer environment and broader feedback.  

- Encourage attendees to be open and honest. Start with a 15-20 minute brainstorming on sticky notes, with each idea having its own sticky note to gather multiple ideas. Once sticky notes are affixed to their corresponding question page, have a facilitator group the ideas into columns of similar suggestions and share each one out loud to validate every idea, while also seeking clarification when necessary.  

- Take time to acknowledge the sharing, and talk about next steps so employee suggestions can result in deliberate leadership actions.  

- Be open to letting your team tell you how you did. In a recent stay interview, one staff member shared, “I felt valued and cared for, not to mention taking me to an inexpensive place with good food.” Another added, “I appreciate being asked my opinion and feel I was really listened to.” 

While there’s never a single approach to hiring and retaining great staff, adding stay interviews to our arsenal has helped us better connect with staff to learn why they stay and how we can continue to value their amazing contributions.  

Robert Sidford is the Director of Technology and Innovation and a 2022 Tech & Learning Innovative Leader Award winner. Dr. Lisa Gonzales is Chief Business Officer and Association of California School Administrator’s 2022 Business Leader of the Year. Both are leaders in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District in California.