It should come as no surprise that both the public and private sectors have experienced labor shortages following the most serious public health crisis the world has experienced in more than 100 years.
The situation seems to have improved slightly here in Connecticut. As of the end of August, the state’s unemployment rate was down to 4.1%, according to the state Department of Labor, but it’s still higher than the jobless rate of 3.4% in February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic asserted itself. Connecticut’s unemployment rate, though, is stubbornly higher than the national rate of 3.5% reported last month by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Connecticut Business and Industry Association, which recently labeled the state’s labor shortage a “full-blown crisis,” reports that Connecticut’s labor force, which it defines as the number of employed residents plus those actively looking for work, has fallen by a “staggering” 92,000 people since February 2020.
Merchants and retailers still struggle to fill positions, as they will readily tell you. So there is no question that if you’ve got a job to fill, it’s bound to be an uphill climb – here and most everywhere else. But the shortage I find most interesting lies in the sphere of public education.
The general labor shortage has hit the teaching profession even harder. As my colleague Susan Campbell reported in August, many teachers were exhausted by pandemic-era mandates and retired or otherwise left the classroom earlier than expected. And with only a few weeks left before the start of school, Hartford Public Schools said it had only filled 86% of its teaching positions and was offering $5,000 signing bonuses for certain subjects. The New Haven Public School district had 100 openings.
Things got so bad in Florida that, after debating and passing the Stop Woke Act, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law and fretting over the purported “indoctrination” of its nearly 3 million public school children, the Sunshine State found itself with 8,000 teacher vacancies.
That’s right. In a state of nearly 22 million people, public school officials can’t find 8,000 people who want to teach the next generation. There is some evidence that the so-called “culture wars” have played a role in the nationwide teacher shortage. But as others have pointed out, if you’re experiencing labor scarcity, “capitalism has an answer” – namely offering higher wages, which in turn will increase applications for the positions. In many cases, that’s easier said than done. Big corporations like Amazon and Bank of America can absorb those costs. The mom-and-pop store on Main Street, not so much.
It’s also hard to do in public education – especially on short notice. In most states, school boards are bound by previously approved budgets and labor contracts that don’t generally allow for flexibility on wages that are determined almost entirely by years of service and the number of degrees a teacher possesses.
So Florida and a few other states have tried a different approach. In Arizona, the state board of education voted this year to permit substitute teachers, who need only a high school diploma, to serve as full-time classroom teachers for up to an entire school year.
Oklahoma’s governor has signed into law an “adjunct teacher” program exempting some candidates from meeting the standard certification requirements because of their professional expertise in the content area. The law also allows certified teachers to teach subjects outside their area of certification.
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law in June that gives qualifying military veterans a five-year teaching certificate and allows them to work as teachers while they earn their bachelor’s degrees. The reaction among the education establishment was mostly one of horror.
It’s not a perfect solution, and I was skeptical because the idea evidently came from the administration of DeSantis, whose every move these days is seemingly calibrated to grease the skids for a presidential run in 2024.
Teacher unions in Florida deemed the law an affront to their dignity and suggested it devalued the profession. One union boss said the real problem was people in high places like DeSantis who disrespect public education and pass demagogic laws such as the Stop Woke Act. They’re actively rooting for DeSantis’ Democratic challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist. I share the union’s low regard for DeSantis, but that doesn’t mean every idea he has is a bad one.
As long as the law allowing uncertified veterans to teach is a temporary measure, then I could support it. Indeed, I would expand it to people in other careers until the shortage dies down.
I was an uncertified teacher for 12 years in private schools, which typically do not require licensed teachers. Administrators can simply hire whomever they think would be the best fit – both for the classroom and for the culture of the school itself.
Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it’s a disaster. But the same could be said of the credentialed. I’ve seen certified teachers who were gifted and others who were burned out and barely competent. Still, adequate teacher training is essential. It’s a necessity too many private schools don’t take seriously.
When I was in the business in the 80s and 90s, the prevailing attitude among private school administrators was something along the lines of: “If we hire smart people, they’ll figure out how to be good teachers, so we don’t need to provide them with a whole lot of training.” That position always struck me as unsatisfying.
Still, it should be noted that some studies, including one conducted in 2007 by professors at Harvard, Columbia, and Dartmouth, have found “little difference in the average academic achievement impacts of certified, uncertified, and alternatively certified teachers.”
The teacher shortage in Connecticut was not severe enough to necessitate the kind of legislation we saw in Florida. That could be because our teacher salaries are higher than in the Sunshine State, thanks in part to Connecticut’s Education Enhancement Act of 1986, which provided grants and incentives that dramatically boosted pay. The average salary of a public school teacher in Connecticut is nearly $80,000 (compared to $51,000 in Florida) and the benefits include premium health insurance and increasingly rare defined-benefit pensions.
Teachers in Connecticut now earn roughly the same salaries as mid-level managers in business, but they have better benefits, don’t have to work as many days and don’t have to travel on business and be away from their families for days or weeks at a time. I think that’s fair and I’m proud to live in a state that values education and backs it with funding, even if it hits me in my wallet. After all, Connecticut public schools produced my two upstanding kids, and they were worth every penny.