Staffing Your Office in a Complex Environment

By Duane Quinn,
Senior Consultant with The Higher Education Assistance Group, Inc.(HEAG)

Having hired a good number of temporary staff members during my career, and now during retirement being one myself, I have come to understand a lot of the positive and negative aspects of working with consultants and staffing agencies.  And currently, during times of increased aid applications and budgetary issues, we are all dealing with the need for temporary help more than ever.

For those aid offices that use temporary staff, the best option is calling the seasoned aid professional that has temped in your office for some time.  That person knows the routine, the office policies, and the college software.  They are ready to start on quick notice; you know the individual’s ability to fit in with the other personnel, and you know their ability to perform.  It has been a good match in the past and there is no need to change now.
But, when the need for temporary help arises quickly and the seasonal pressures are at their height, how do you meet your office needs when there is no past help to rely on?   In cases like this you have two options:  recruit a temporary staff member yourself, or turn to a temporary staffing agency.

In my experience, recruitment on your own can be frustrating and time consuming.  The position needs to be advertised, often requiring the intervention and approval of the Human Resources office.  Since you cannot sort out applicants through and advertisement, time is spent in interviews, and in the end there is always the question of the individual’s ability to fit into the office routine.

Filling staffing needs through an agency can eliminate a lot of the time and frustration of finding the right individual, at the time when you need it.  And time is critical when the aid office is short staffed, whether it is due to resignations, family leave, or simply piles of unread applications.

1.  Be prepared to carefully describe your needs to the agency. 
You should be detailed in describing the functions you expect of the temporary staff member.  Will she be reviewing applications, will he be dealing directly with parents and students, or will she be mostly concerned with data entry?  If the staff member will be involved in your aid management system, describe the system and any institutional modifications that are unique to your office.  Describe your expectations for the hourly work day and the specific time frame for which you will need the individual.  Are you primarily an FM office or will the individual need to be versed in IM?  If you are an IM office, what are the specific IM options used in your need analysis and awarding procedures.  These are the types of specifics which are difficult to describe in an advertisement, and issues which can be discussed with an agency and of which an agency should be fully aware.

By a detailed description of your needs, you assist the agency in sorting among their staff for you.  The agency is able to review your needs and compare them to the strengths of the personnel they have available to them.  The agency is able to narrow down potential temporary staff whom are best able to fill the needs which you have specified.  In many cases, an agency can provide you with the precise expertise you are looking for and that you have not been able to find on your own, and at the time when you need it.

2.  An interview with the potential candidate is still an important step, but the pool is already narrowed to individual(s) who appear to meet your needs.  Once a good prospect is identified, an interviewed is still very important since it assesses if a good chemistry exists between you and the potential consultant.  At this time, you should concentrate on confirming that the individual has the skills which you have described, and most importantly will make the correct fit into your office staff.  Once you are satisfied, the individual is ready to begin filling your office needs.

3. The agency has the responsibility of making sure you are happy with the staffing match.
There is beauty in knowing that this relationship you have entered into with this agency and consultant is a business relationship only, which can stop at almost any time with minimal explanation on your part.  In the rare occasion where you discover that the selection was not the correct fit for your office, contact the agency to make a replacement.  Once again, you have the ability to change staffing without going back through the time consuming interview process, and without the need to work through the human resources department. In addition, you do not have to spend valuable time addressing shortcomings and problems with the consultant directly.

4. In many cases, the consultant assigned to the school becomes a valuable asset to the financial aid office.
Once a good consultant is identified and trained, they can be asked to return time and time again as the need dictates such as when a vacancy occurs or processing pressures mount. More and more schools now even budget for extra seasonal help to get through the year, and rely on agency support to do this. Hence, more and more financial aid consulting groups and companies are on the scene today working as the partner to the financial aid office.

5. Hiring through an agency allows the school  to work with temporary staff without having to hire them.
Recent changes in employment law require that all schools who work with temporary, consulting help must hire them as an employee and follow their due process for hiring and termination etc. This presents a greater burden on the school who selects to work with seasonal, temporary employees. If working with an agency, the consultant is considered their employee and the school is not involved.

6. Thanks to the Internet and the electronic age, much of the work in the financial aid office can be done remotely.
Specialized services in almost all aspects of the financial aid office can now be handled remotely if the school is looking to do that.  More and more schools are now developing partnerships with agencies or consulting groups to provide them with a processing and staffing solution on a remote basis.

7. Working with an agency provides the school another level of comfort in that they carry professional liability insurance in the event an error or miscalculation happens. 
Most solo and individual consultants do not carry this type of insurance which exposes them to liabilities if they perform an error or if a problem arises. Considering the amount of financial aid dollars that are at stake, having this level of protection can be very important to the school.

Your time is valuable and the need to be fully staffed in crucial periods is essential to meeting enrollment goals.  Sometimes a staffing agency can be the best resource to keep your office running happily and efficiently.