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Published in Print: October 3, 2001, as Softening Economy May Ease Hiring Crunch for Schools

Softening Economy May Ease Hiring Crunch for Schools

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Headhunters working to help the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools recruit staff have struggled for the last several years to fill job vacancies in the North Carolina system. But this year, they're facing a blizzard of applications for positions from bus driver to cafeteria worker to teacher, in part because of the wilting economy.

As workers in the area are laid off or let go, they are turning to the school district to find permanent employment and health-care benefits, said Barbara M. Jenkins, the assistant superintendent for human resources for the 108,000- student district. This school year alone, district administrators report, nearly 3,400 people submitted résumés for some 500 jobs. In contrast, only 1,700 people applied for the same number of jobs at the start of the 2000-01 school year.

"The folks that run the data for us are overwhelmed with double or triple the number of applicants for positions," Ms. Jenkins said. "We hear people saying, 'I'm tired of downsizing; I want stability.' "

Economists say they see the trend reflected in nationwide employment data, and administrators in such states as California, Texas, Virginia, and Washington report that they are thrilled to watch as their applicant pools increase. They say many of those applying are well-qualified—even overqualified—for the available positions. And they're willing to work for the relatively modest salaries offered by districts.

The news of a shifting marketplace—even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks added to the woes of the U.S. economy—comes as schools in many communities are weathering severe shortages of educators, substitute teachers, bus drivers, plumbers, and carpenters.

"Any time there is a downturn in the economy," said Gerardo M. Gonzalez, the dean of the school of education at Indiana University in Bloomington, "schools provide a means for employment.

"People who would not normally enter the job market in a school setting can see the opportunities there," he said, "and if the environment is a supportive one, they may then want to remain in the district even when the economy turns around."

'Dot.Com' Downsizing

School districts are logical places to look for work, Mr. Gonzalez said, because people see the need for educational services in their own neighborhoods. While economic downturns may affect families financially, children still go to class. That means jobs remain for bus drivers, cafeteria workers, secretaries, and classroom aides.

The teacher labor force grew by 4 percent while the noninstructional school labor force grew by 6 percent between August 2000 and 2001, according to Ron Bird, the chief economist for the Employment Policy Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit, nonpartisan education and research foundation that monitors job trends. In comparison, the national labor force grew by less than 1 percent during that time.

"With unemployment among school workers relatively unchanged, it appears that employment opportunities in schools are growing at a stronger rate than the rest of the economy," he said.

No doubt the economy will be further impacted by the events of Sept. 11, as airlines and others in the tourism industry lay off workers who are, in turn, looking for employment elsewhere.

Administrators in communities where technology companies and related businesses once reigned say they are noticing the shifts. While some districts are seeing an influx of applications for positions requiring mastery of computers, others are observing an increase in queries about administrative work or janitorial jobs.

The teacher shortage has disappeared altogether in northern California's 32,000-student San Jose district this year, owing to a market flooded with "dot.com" refugees recently laid off by computer companies in the surrounding Silicon Valley, said John Shannon, the district's manager for employee services.

Administrators were looking to hire 400 new teachers to fill out the ranks of a 1,800-member faculty and were able to do so by the first day of classes this year, Mr. Shannon said. At that same time last year, administrators were still trying to fill 24 teaching positions, he said. It has traditionally been most difficult to hire those who specialize in mathematics, science, or special education, or who are bilingual.

Another difference in the current market: Substitute teachers are more plentiful in the San Jose area. A job fair held last year targeting the part-timers yielded only 30 interested people, Mr. Shannon said. More than 100 people turned out for the event this year.

"It isn't only that there is a higher quantity of people applying for teaching positions, but the quality of people applying is better," Mr. Shannon said. Some applicants have earned advanced degrees, he added, while others have been successful in business.

The pipeline of future educators also looks promising, he said. An alternative teacher-preparation program launched this year is training some 70 prospective educators, about 60 percent or 70 percent of whom came from the technology sector or a related business, he said.

Meanwhile, in Fairfax County, Va., another home of many telecommunications firms, the number of applications for the five openings in the 165,000-student district's information-technology department was dramatically higher than in the past, said Ted Davis, its director. A few years ago, such posts have attracted 50 applications each, but this year, each job has attracted between 100 and 200 résumés.

"We're getting applicants who say they'll accept salaries in our range, whereas before, they wouldn't even look at us," Mr. Davis said. The district pays between $50,000 and $60,000 for entry-level technology jobs, about half of what many private companies paid employees with similar qualifications only a year ago, he said.

Recruiters in the Austin, Texas, district aren't waiting for those who are laid off to come to them in search of work. Instead, they are targeting employees soon after public announcements of downsizing are made.

Michael Houser, the executive director of human resources for the 78,000-student district, got in touch with the personnel department at Dell Computers immediately upon reading in the local newspaper that up to 1,000 employees would be let go. Dell announced the job listings and helped prospective applicants get contact information.

"We asked the organization for anyone and everyone because we were really hurting to fill positions," Mr. Houser said.

Half a dozen technology jobs filled up instantly, he said, and many people have mentioned that they will pursue a teacher-preparation program so that they can return to the district and teach. Overall, the district received about 2,500 applications for 600 vacancies this fall—about one-third more than last year, although many of the applicants had no history at Dell.

'Catching Our Breath'

Despite the apparent new interest in school jobs, administrators haven't stopped worrying about shortages. They wonder if their good luck is a fluke and express concern about the retirement of many employees from the baby boom generation within the next few years.

"The impact has slowed some of the panic we felt," said Ms. Jenkins of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district. "We're catching our breath—but barely."

Administrators could—and should—take advantage of the bigger unemployed labor force, said Indiana University's Mr. Gonzalez.

The first priority for school districts, in his view, should be to provide competitive salaries so that employees will remain in the schools once the economy regains strength. Offering professional development also enhances worker contentment, as does fostering communication between employees and their higher-ups, he said.

"We have to increase the attractiveness of teaching and school-related employment in our society," Mr. Gonzalez said, "so that there is a long-term investment."

Vol. 21, Issue 5, Pages 1,18,20

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