Pinch Hitters

February 01, 2002 5 min read
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A growing number of schools turn to temp agencies to find subs.

Tracy Branigan needs a job. Just a few weeks before Christmas, the 47-year-old mother found herself out of work after nearly two decades as a legal secretary. This morning, she looks tired, hunched over a pile of paperwork inside the New Castle, Delaware, branch office of Kelly Services, one of the nation’s largest temporary-employment agencies.

“I’m having my midlife crisis,” she says with a wry smile as she fills out another form. “I thought I would change careers. I really like working with kids. My sister has been telling me for years to become a teacher.”

Not long ago, Branigan, who’s never taught before, would have had to brave the bureaucracy of the Christina School District to secure the substitute teaching job she hopes to snag. Now the Kelly agency, which has taken over the process, runs ads boasting a convenient and efficient route into the classroom. And school officials, who recently signed a five-year contract with the company to screen, hire, and place subs, expect that Kelly will cut hassles for them, as well.

Every morning, across the country, administrators scramble to find subs for some 5 million kids who’ll need them. When schools fail to fill the many holes— around 270,000 substitutes are needed daily—some teachers wind up doing double duty to cover for absent colleagues. Officials at Kelly intend to help solve this perpetual problem, one they say is increasing as teachers miss class time to fulfill growing professional-development requirements.

After just a few years in this business, Kelly Educational Staffing, the agency’s subs division, provides about 1,800 temporary teachers in more than 1,000 public and private schools in 34 states. Although Kelly is the only national staffing agency placing subs, about a dozen local temp agencies also have taken the much-despised task off administrators’ hands.

The temp agency didn’t exactly go charging into the education world. When the superintendent of the Gulfport School District in Gulfport, Mississippi, approached a Kelly manager four years ago to see if the company would be interested in expanding into sub placement, “we were very skeptical,” says Teresa Setting, vice president of product management and recruiting. She and others atthe agency wondered if they had anything to contribute to the teacher field. “But we looked at the research, and the research showed a demand,” she says. “The administrative burden is huge, and districts were not prepared.”

And while Kelly is focused on the bottom line—the Fortune 500 company brought in $4.5 billion last year—its education staffers say they care about quality. At the New Castle branch, manager Amy Walden is full of school spirit, greeting prospective substitutes with a wide smile and a keen sense of mission. “We have a great stake in how our teachers do,” she says. “These schools are turning out our future employees.”

Tracy Branigan fills out the typical forms any job hunter must complete and provides some teacher-specific extras: a health certificate, fingerprints, and proof of education. Later, she watches a video featuring teachers waxing poetic about the joys of substitute work. The film was produced by the Substitute Teaching Institute, a well-regarded Utah State University-based organization, which has developed all of Kelly’s teacher-prep materials.

Before Branigan heads off to school, she’ll attend a one-time, 75-minute orientation during which a Kelly employee will review administrative details, distribute sample lesson plans, and provide a crash course in classroom management, including tips on handling unruly kids. This is about the same amount of preparation that most of the nation’s substitutes receive, says Geoffrey Smith, the institute’s executive director.

Once a sub is placed, schools pay Kelly the going district rate (which the agency hands over to the teacher) plus a service fee that varies with the educational background of the substitute and the package each district negotiates. (For example, a school system might request that Kelly provide additional training.) In Delaware, Kelly charges a daily fee of $138 for every certified teacher, $110 for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree, and $87 for one with a high school degree.

Such fees are a major reason why many educators aren’t sold on temp companies filling teacher positions. Shirley Kirsten, who started California’s first independent union for subs and now directs the National Substitute Teachers Alliance, argues that service fees divert money that should end up in subs’ pockets. “We feel the burden of responsibility with education resides with the school districts,” she says. “We don’t believe a for-profit agency should be involved. Kelly’s own Web site talks about how easy it is to be a substitute teacher,” a perception she contends is untrue and ultimately damaging to the profession’s crusade for better pay and more respect.

Cost aside, what kinds of teachers do temp agencies place in classrooms? Nick Fischer, superintendent of the Christina district, claims the quality of agency subs has been strong. “We are quite happy,” he says. “We have a very good relationship with Kelly in terms of letting them know what we’re looking for. It’s been extremely helpful to us.” Before school officials signed on with the company, he says, the district struggled to compete for subs with nearby districts in Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Kelly’s ability to focus on finding subs, plus its pitch to prospective teachers that they can participate in the company’s health and 401(k) plans after a certain period, gives Delaware schools an edge.

In any case, the trend may not be destined to skyrocket. Smith doubts schools in the United States will soon become like those in London, where about 80 percent of substitute teachers come from temporary employment firms. He notes that agencies make money from service fees based on teacher salaries, and London subs receive the same pay as full-time teachers. As long as American substitutes make only about a third of what full-time teachers earn, placing temporary teachers in schools may not be extremely profitable.

—John Gehring


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