Teaching Profession

Need a Sub? ‘Temp’ Agency Ready To Serve

By Robert C. Johnston — November 10, 1999 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 5 min read

Corrected: The correct name of the university at which the Substitute Teaching Institute is located is Utah State University in Logan.

Frustrated over how much work it took to find substitute teachers, the superintendent of schools in Gulfport, Miss., asked the local manager of a temporary-staffing agency if she had ever considered getting into the business of supplying them. She had not, but she soon saw the potential.

Two and a half years later, Kelly Services has contracts to provide substitute teachers to 12 school districts in Mississippi and Louisiana. And last week, the Troy, Mich.-based company announced that it would begin offering the same service nationwide through its 1,200 local offices.

While other temporary-staffing agencies also provide substitute teachers, Kelly is the first to do so on a national scale, according to company officials.

“The timing is right now for Kelly Services and school districts,” said Teresa Setting, the director of product management for the company. “There is a large shortage of substitute teachers.”

The shortage is fueled in part by the strong economy, which has opened up numerous alternative job opportunities for potential subs. At the same time, a renewed focus on professional development for teachers has increased the need for substitutes who can fill in for them while they’re receiving training.

While many districts may welcome the assistance of “temp” agencies, Kelly Services’ plans are already drawing the wary watch of substitute-teaching activists. They worry that a move toward private suppliers could blunt their effort to raise the status of substitute teachers and improve their working conditions.

“I’m not too happy about this trend,” said Shirley Kirsten, who led the recent effort to found the 300- member Fresno Area Substitute Teachers Association, California’s first independent union for substitute teachers. “It takes the onus off of school districts to improve the situation for substitute teachers. ... This pigeonholes substitutes as temps and not as alternatives to teachers.”

Gulfport’s Experience

Kelly Services, founded in 1946 and formerly known as Kelly Girl Service Inc., is a Fortune 500 company that provides more than 750,000 temporary workers annually for office services, accounting, light industry, and home care. The company generated more than $4 billion in sales last year and is one of the largest temporary-staffing agencies in the country.

Ms. Setting said that if temporary-staffing agencies were to provide just half the nation’s substitute teachers, they would be tapping into a $2.5 billion industry.

Teresa Setting

To date, Kelly Services’ limited experience with substitute teachers appears to be working well for the company and at least one of the 12 school districts with which it has contracts.

Carlos Hicks, the Gulfport, Miss., superintendent, floated the idea of providing temporary teachers to a Kelly Services manager during a Rotary Club luncheon. His 6,400-student district sometimes needs up to 100 subs a day.

“With 2.5 percent unemployment locally, we were having a great deal of trouble finding substitutes,” he said. “I just asked if Kelly Services had ever provided subs, and the light bulbs just went off.”

Last year, Gulfport principals and teachers overwhelmingly voted to extend the district’s one-year contract with Kelly Services. Mr. Hicks said a few teachers voted against the contract because they wanted to pick the substitutes for their classes— something that is harder, albeit possible, under the new arrangement.

The contract costs Gulfport schools about 12 percent more for substitute teachers than it did when the district was handling the job. But Mr. Hicks has no qualms about that.

“We have teachers, principals, and secretaries doing what they are supposed to be doing, instead of covering for other teachers,” he said. “You can’t put a price on that, but it’s worth what we are paying.”

Judy Platt, who manages the Gulfport office for Kelly Services, said her staff has filled all but 16 of the 4,000 requests it had for substitute teachers in the past nine months. The company has learned to anticipate high-need times, such as Mondays, Fridays, and holidays, as well as staff-training days.

Carlos Hicks

Once a contract is signed with a school district, she said, her agency expands the district’s list of substitutes by using newspaper ads, college postings, the Internet, and contacts through other organizations to find qualified candidates. The substitute teachers must meet the minimum standards of the school districts, are paid according to each district’s scale, and undergo background checks and training, she added.

“The priority is that we fill every order we get,” she said.

The company attracts new substitutes because it offers health benefits, vacation pay, and other employment when no substitute positions are available.

“We’re attracting another caliber of people who had not worked for us,” Ms. Platt said. “Most of the time, it just didn’t occur to them to go to the district and apply.”

Ms. Platt declined to say how much Kelly Services charges for its substitutes, adding that the fee varies according to the contract worked out with each district.

Challenges Ahead

Some observers are skeptical, that temporary-staffing agencies will be able to overcome substitute-teacher shortages without help from the districts.

“It’s hard to find substitutes for the basic reason that they have not been well-paid,” said Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association. “Hiring a temporary agency will not change that.”

While temporary-staffing agencies are relatively new to the substitute-teaching scene in the United States, they are widely used in England, said Geoffrey G. Smith, the executive director of the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University in Logan.

The institute, which designs substitute-teacher training programs for districts, is under contract to Kelly Services to provide its education training materials. In addition to a 20-minute videotape that is currently being used by Kelly Services, Mr. Smith said a 10-hour computer-guided training session would be ready for the company by next spring.

While Mr. Smith believes that temporary agencies offer a workable option for districts, he predicts they will have a tough time taking over large chunks of substitute-teacher services.

“There’s such a shortage that more districts will be willing to talk about it,” he said. “But it’s a new concept, and it won’t be easy for school districts to turn it over. There’s a lot of ownership in that.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as Need a Sub? ‘Temp’ Agency Ready To Serve


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