It’s no secret that America’s education workforce is in crisis. Already stressed before the COVID-19 pandemic began, educators, administrators, and support staff have been facing difficult choices about reopened workplaces, the politicization of pandemic-related mitigations, and challenges to curriculums and even teaching methods. For educators, staff shortages — including for critical support workers and substitute teachers — have only intensified the existing pressure.
The result? In a recent poll conducted by research and strategy firm GBAO on behalf of the National Education Association (NEA), the country's largest teachers union, 55% of responding teachers said they were planning to leave the field earlier than expected because of the pandemic — which is almost double the number of respondents who answered the same way in July 2020.
Education sector workers aren’t alone — record numbers of employees are leaving their jobs across sectors, leveraging a favorable job market for workers to look for new opportunities, new careers, or better pay and benefits. But the turmoil in the education world has far-reaching consequences: According to estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are 50.7 million students in America’s public schools alone in 2022 — meaning teachers, administrators, support staff, and the other employees who keep schools running have an outsized impact on day-to-day American life and the US economy. And per the US Census Bureau, in 2018, students accounted for 25% of the age-three-and-over population.
Employment statistics show that, like many other sectors, the number of education workers dropped sharply in the spring of 2020, as the pandemic forced school buildings to close and schools shifted to remote learning. And while the numbers of both public and private school employees have rebounded some, they still haven’t returned to their pre-pandemic levels. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of December 2021, America’s public and private schools employed 8,780,400 workers (predominantly in the public school system, representing 7,677,000 workers, or 87%), making up approximately 6% of the total US workforce. That’s 371,900 fewer employees (a drop of approximately 4%) than were employed in the education sector in February 2020.
School districts are facing major staffing shortages — and, much like in the government and public sector — some of the factors (and remedies) aren’t directly within their control. But as the last two years have shown, the critical role schools play in not just education, but also in community building and community support, can’t be overstated. While the challenges are difficult and complicated, education sector HR departments do have access to tools and strategies they can use to increase hiring and retention rates and prepare their schools and districts to rebuild for the future.
Below, we'll take a closer look at some of the most pressing challenges facing the education sector today — and the steps HR can take to address them.
Experts agree: Educational hiring, challenged for years, is extremely difficult right now. “Teaching and working in schools during the pandemic has brought a host of new stressful challenges, and scrambled the national workforce in ways that are unique. But schools have historically dealt with staff shortages in a variety of positions, including bus drivers and certified special education assistants,” said Mark Lieberman, a reporter for Education Week. “[Staffing shortages] are getting more attention now because they're more widespread, but they've always been a crucial element of the inequities in America's K-12 system.”
Job-listing site CareerBuilder’s January 2022 Jobs Insight Report showed that positions in education had a 397% year-over-year increase in job postings, according to Liz Cannata, the company’s VP of Human Resources.
“Hiring within the education system right now is proving to be extremely challenging as employers struggle to retain teachers who are leaving the profession in waves [due to] burnout, difficult working conditions, [low] pay, and staff shortages largely [made worse] by the pandemic,” she said.
HR professionals working in education don’t always have the same freedom to respond to difficult hiring conditions as their counterparts in the private sector do. With contracts at public schools often negotiated with the local teachers unions and budgets set by local governments, changes to perks, schedules, and working conditions aren’t generally on the table. And while the polarization of the current political landscape isn’t an issue that any one HR team can tackle on its own, experts said there are things that fall within Human Resources’s purview that can help schools get — and keep — the staff they need. Here’s what they recommend.
1. Cast a wider net.
Acute staffing shortages have led a number of schools and districts to look beyond their normal pool of applicants in order to find potential new staff members who are ready to contribute. Human Resources teams at schools desperate for substitute teachers, for example, are diversifying their recruiting efforts by encouraging stay-at-home parents, retired professionals, or college students to apply to work as subs and support staff; some schools and districts are even reducing normal certificate or degree requirements to increase the pool of eligible substitute teachers.
Cannata said that this is exactly what districts should be doing in order to staff critical classroom positions where formal teacher training isn’t necessary. “[Schools] are seeing the value in diversifying their candidate pool and considering candidates outside the education sector with a range of applicable skills from different industries,” she said.
2. Invest in the environment.
Concerns that schools haven’t been properly equipped for a safe return after COVID shutdowns with improved ventilation and other modifications to the work environment have driven a number of employees, worried about their own health or that of at-risk loved ones at home, to resign. While the budget for school renovations is generally out of the hands of HR departments, advocating for space improvement and other upgrades to classrooms and common areas (like installing school-wide HVAC filtration systems, purchasing fans, repairing windows and doors to make sure they can open, and even adding outdoor classrooms) to improve safety and general well-being can go a long way to reassuring potential new hires that you take their health — and the health of their students— seriously.
If this seems like a lot to tackle internally, there’s outside help available: The US Department of Education (ED) has released resources to help schools improve their ventilation, and American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds can be used to purchase equipment and make repairs to buildings.
3. Bring pay up to par.
As employers across the board are finding, in today’s ultra competitive labor market, one of the most powerful steps to attract more candidates and fill positions is clear: Update — and increase — compensation packages, not just for teachers but for all staff members.
“Private employers are offering higher wages and better benefits, sometimes in roles that are less demanding or more flexible,” Lieberman said. “Teachers and other school workers who are in school buildings are getting burned out and fed up with having to cover for absent or departed colleagues on top of their regular duties, all while getting paid a suboptimal wage. It's easy to imagine people deciding other fields would be more lucrative and less exploitative.”
The competition, Lieberman added, isn’t just with other employers — it’s with other educational institutions, too. “Public school districts with minimal capacity for raising local revenue (i.e., in poor areas) are getting outbid for qualified workers by districts with larger tax bases,” he said. “Rural schools historically struggle with this phenomenon, but it's even more acute now than it was before the pandemic.”
To counteract this, Lieberman said many school districts are digging into their budgets to try to find extra cash, dipping into emergency reserves, and increasing substitute teacher pay. Pay is a critical issue, Lieberman said — and increasing the compensation offered can equip schools with much-needed support that can help stem the flow of losses and start bringing new employees into the field.
The bottom line: Teachers and staff from elementary schools to higher education are looking for “wage increases, better benefits, fewer requirements for overtime work, and better funding for school facilities and other programs,” said Lieberman.
Struggles in the education sector affect not just families but communities, too — and it’s clear that recovering from staffing challenges will require more than quick fixes and simply onboarding more teachers and staff. Experts said that creative problem-solving and flexibility may be what’s needed to mobilize more support for fixing big-picture employment issues in the education sector.
“School districts will need to meet the [staffing] demand by finding ways to alleviate stress and prioritize the well-being of existing and future employees,” Cannata said.