Teacher Shortage: How Districts Can Use Benefits to Recruit and Retain in Today’s Environment

Education, Employee Benefits, War For Talent

It has been three years since the pandemic began, jumpstarting an already concerning teacher shortage. Unfortunately, that talent shortage is still a major challenge for districts today.

A quick look at Wisconsin Public Radio’s “teacher shortage” tag (yes, there is an entire subcategory created for this topic due to its prevalence in Wisconsin and surrounding states) tells a story of an increase in emergency teaching licenses, universities extending their tuition promise program to boost the number of teachers in the state, rural schools having to shuffle their staff to accommodate class sizes, and, tellingly, reports highlighting national data that shows steep declines in math and reading.

The teacher shortage has never been a light issue, but it is quickly becoming a crisis. More than ever, school districts need to be able to utilize all the tools at their disposal to recruit and retain the best talent to support the next generation and foster community success.

How did we get here?

There are both economic and societal factors that have driven the teacher shortage. When we are aware of the issues acting as a catalyst for this crisis, we can better understand how to provide the appropriate solutions.

Inflation and Declining Compensation

Inflation is prevalent across America, hitting a peak in June 2022 with a 9.1% inflation rate, and, in March 2023, hovering around 5%. This weakening of the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar has had an impact on many Americans, but particularly those who were already strapped for funds.

A recent study showed that more than half (58%) of Americans could not cover an out-of-pocket expense of $1,000, up from 46% in 2021.

In that same study, 61% of employees stated that they have seen a negative impact from inflation, and over a third (35%) indicated that they’ve had to make a difficult health care decision due to the rising costs of consumer goods, choosing between affording medical treatment or a prescription or being able to pay a bill.

At the same time, teachers “consistently earn substantially less – in salary and benefits – than other work with a similar level of formal education”, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Almost all public K-12 teachers have at least a four-year college degree (96%), and many also have advanced degrees (56%), according to that same study.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that, in the mid-1990s, public school teachers made 5% less per week than other college graduates in the workforce. Today, they make 23.5% less per week.

The combination of rising prices and declining compensation is a major reason why current teachers are leaving the profession for more lucrative opportunities.

A Global Pandemic and an Increasingly Stressful Work Environment

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on our society, and certainly disrupted the education profession. Teachers were forced to find new ways of teaching in a remote environment, and then, to manage the delays in learning caused by the pandemic and try to get their students up to speed.

Add in sources of teacher stress that existed before the pandemic – sources like large class sizes, lack of autonomy or control, politicization of the profession, their own financial and childcare struggles…

It’s a lot – and these high expectations for educators have created a work environment that is so stressful that it is driving many talented teachers out of education.

Is a Solution Attainable?

Interestingly, the Economic Policy Institute makes sure to state that their key finding is that the current shortage isn’t caused by an insufficient number of potentially qualified teachers. “The shortage is, instead, a shortfall in the number of qualified teachers willing to work at current wages and under current working conditions,” according to the study.

This finding should be heartening for districts – top educators are out there and ready to teach your students. Now, what tools can we use to recruit and retain these talented individuals?

How do we recruit and retain educators during a teacher shortage?

Districts do have options at their disposal to better recruit and retain educators, even in the midst of a teacher shortage.

Communicate the value of your benefits

If your employees don’t see the value of your benefits, they won’t consider them a reason to stay with your district. Districts should spend time developing a communication strategy that will keep the value of your benefits package top of mind for educators throughout the year, in addition to creating a benefits program that fits staff needs.

Form benefit advisory committees

Of course, communication is a two-way street. Benefit advisory committees can provide key insights into what your staff value from their benefits. Giving your employees a voice in their benefits can also increase current employee engagement and help you form a benefits program that is attractive to the type of talent that you are trying to recruit.

The benefit advisory committee is typically made up of staff from the benefits / HR team, finance, and a diverse group of representatives from the organization. This can include contracted and hourly staff from various departments, buildings, etc.

We’ve found these types of committees to be most successful when a diverse group is brought together to weigh in on the benefits, and we’ve found that employees who are a part of the committee tend to feel ownership over and connected to your benefits.

It is important to note that the benefits advisory committee could be subject to the open meetings law based on the scope or membership of the benefit advisory committee. If any of the following are true of the benefit advisory committee, it is advised that the district consult their counsel regarding open meetings law requirements: (1) Board member participation on the committee; (2) Board direction/action to create the committee [even if no board members are participating]; or (3) Board policy or procedure that creates the committee [even if no board members are participating].

Provide voluntary benefits that address educators’ most pressing needs

Voluntary benefits can be a great tool to help you reposition your benefits program. An industry leading insurance carrier conducted a study that found that, specifically in the education sector, “87% of employees feel critical illness is either a must-have or a nice to have benefit, ranking it right alongside life insurance (88%) and slightly about flex spending (82%) and health savings accounts (83%).”

Voluntary benefits help employees save, provide them with protection, and empower employees to make the choices that work best for their lifestyle and risk tolerance. These benefits offer an opportunity for districts to provide a safety net for employees who are worried about the “what ifs” – at a low cost.

Other voluntary benefits options that can help address educators’ needs include student loan repayment, lifestyle benefits (childcare stipends, transportation credits, etc.), pet insurance, and more.

Integrate wellbeing strategies

Districts who take a holistic approach to employee wellbeing cement their reputation as an employer of choice. While compensation and benefits are extremely important for recruiting and retaining talent in education, fostering a workplace that is invested in the wellbeing of staff can help to address the increasing stress educators feel day-to-day, and show that you are focused on helping your employees beyond a professional lens, through the facets of mental health, financial wellbeing, and more.

Key Takeaways

The teacher shortage was catalyzed by the pandemic and continues to be a problem for districts across the Midwest. Inflation, decreasing compensation, and increased stress in the workplace are key reasons why educators are leaving the profession (or choosing not to enter it entirely).

Districts have the opportunity to reposition their benefits package to better recruit and retain talent. Reach out to your M3 team to discuss how your benefits could be augmented with voluntary benefits, wellbeing strategies, benefits advisory committees, or a communication plan to meet your talent attraction and retention goals.

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