As school districts are struggling to stay fully staffed, business leaders are growing concerned about the implications for their future employees.
Kelly Education, which works with school districts across the country to provide staffing—including substitute teachers, custodial staff, and school nurses—has experienced skyrocketing demand for its services since the pandemic began. To understand the potential impact of educator shortages on the future workforce, the company commissioned a national survey of more than 2,000 executives in July.
The survey, which included responses from leaders of large, mid-size, and small companies, found that employers fear that the educator shortage could lead to a generation of unprepared workers who lack skills like problem-solving and creativity.
The accompanying report from Kelly Education, released this fall, argued that among other factors, educator shortages are driven by growing levels of burnout, low wages, and not feeling safe in school due to the threat of gun violence and potential assaults from students. Kelly Education also used the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey data to project that without any intervention from policymakers, educator shortages may only get worse—and significantly so—in the next three years, largely due to an increase in the number of expected job openings.
The BLS data includes everyone who works in public education, from teachers to administrators to bus drivers. The size and scope of teacher shortages is impossible to pin down because there is no national real-time, comprehensive data.
Education Week spoke to Nicola Soares, the president of Kelly Education, about what she’s seen in schools this year and what she learned from surveying business leaders about their views on educator shortages. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is Kelly Education seeing this year as far as staffing shortages?
We’re still continuing to see the increased demand, particularly with teacher vacancies—every grade level, every subject [and] discipline areas. In addition to that, building principals. But what is interesting to me—it’s not only the academic side of the house, but any positions that support the general day-to-day operations of a school. We’re seeing talent shortages everywhere.
Are you seeing more of a demand for substitutes on a short-term or long-term basis?
It’s everything. We’re starting to see increases of COVID illness as we’re going into the fall and winter months [now]. Also, we’re starting to see an increase of long-term vacancies pop up as a result of performance evaluations that are starting this fall, and maybe [because of] full-time talent in a school district considering, “Do I want to stay in the profession?”
Paraeducators and also school nurses are in high demand, and that’s not a surprise there. Those folks, they’re serving the need for longer-term assignments, and a lot of that ebbs and flows with student enrollment and whatever the need is in the last couple years. Given the pandemic, those services have increased in demand as well.
Who are you turning to meet that increased demand? Have non-traditional candidates expressed interest in working in schools?
We’re seeing a lot of healthcare professionals raise their hands to be a substitute teacher and try out a second career—maybe as a result of being burnt out from fatigue with the pandemic, but still, individuals who are very purpose-driven and want to care for folks. Education is a nice transfer of that.
When we think about [registered nurses] or [licensed practical nurses] or [physician assistants] coming into the thick of things, they have STEM degrees as their undergraduate degrees. They might have a nursing degree or a concentration in biology and chemistry. Those make for a great transfer of knowledge and skills into a STEM classroom.
Are you seeing school districts raise their pay rates for substitutes?
Yes, absolutely. We’ve seen pay rates that districts have increased as much as 50 percent in the last 24 months. We’ve had a huge amount of our clients increase pay rates, not just for academic substitute teachers but also paraeducators in special needs classrooms, school nurses, custodians. Districts have been compelled to do so because of the ... competition for talent.
You recently surveyed business leaders to get their take on educator shortages. What did you learn from them? What stood out to you from the results?
Every year, we embark upon some body of research to support more insights into what I would characterize as a national crisis. We really wanted to hear from the business community in terms of, what does this mean if we [bring] less-qualified teachers into the classroom? [The results were] pretty profound.
We surveyed over 2,000 executive leaders—so [chief executive officers, chief financial officers, chief human resources officers], mid-managers—across the U.S., which was cool to see different points of views and perspectives. But the thing that was so interesting to me was that they were pretty cohesive as a stakeholder in terms of their thoughts of what the impact would be.
You have 91 percent of those business leaders basically saying, if we don’t have qualified teachers in classrooms in really three to five years, they’re going to have businesses and work that is not going to be supported by a qualified workforce. There was a concern around students coming out of their education not having the soft skills that they look for—cognitive reasoning, conflict resolution skills, civic mindedness.
It was interesting also some of the things that they thought needed to be put into place to reverse the trend. An example of that was supporting and advocating more for public policy that could encourage more of a diverse talent pipeline in terms of teacher preparation.
They all agreed that we needed to have increased compensation and benefits and improve the working and learning conditions. [They] also advocated voting for those political candidates who are including addressing the educator shortage issue in their agendas and platforms. Things like advocating more of a voice of really promoting the respect for teachers—just like we do with our veterans, our frontline health care workers.
There was also advocacy around volunteerism into school districts, and advocating—which I thought was interesting—for subsidizing teacher tuition so folks don’t come out of school with such huge college debt.
When I hear from the business community, “If we don’t do something about this, there are huge concerns of not having a workforce that can support business"—that’s frightening. Where it all starts is having quality education, quality teachers in the classroom—the breakdown of innovation and financial literacy and civic-mindedness is reflective in all of that.
A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as Could Educator Shortages Affect the Future Workforce? Here’s What Business Leaders Think