In October last year a speaker contracted by the Ministry of Education caused a furore by telling a group of Victoria University primary teaching students they should go overseas after graduation because only 20% of them would get work.

The seminar was to advise students about their job prospects, and they were told only two out of five new teachers would get full-time permanent jobs within three years of graduating. On the very same day, Victoria University was touting for new teacher education students in the local newspaper. New graduates are resorting to short term relieving jobs “in schools if they’re lucky” going overseas, working in offices or retail – or even working in a school for free to get experience.

The shortage that was

Crises in teacher staffing are “nothing new” but more recently the problem has been shortages. In the mid 1990s, then Education Minister Wyatt Creech organised an emergency airlift of teachers to fill a yawning gap in primary schools classes in Auckland were threatened with closure because of a lack of teachers, retirees were called in as a sort of Dad’s Army and the government sent out a mayday call for more overseas teachers.

Primary teaching was taken off the Department of Immigration’s skills shortage list only two years ago, and since the late 1990s, successive governments have brought in teachers from South Africa, England, Canada, India, South Korea and China. Expatriate New Zealand teachers have again and again been called home.

Promises made

As recently as 2009 a call went out for more students “the government even offered voluntary bonding scholarships” but many of those new graduates are now being told they’ll have to wait years to get work.

The President of the Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA), Pete Hodkinson, says it’s a tragedy that students are being let down by a system that “lacks genuine workforce planning and that continues to aggressively recruit without any alternative approach. (Students) have made huge sacrifices and a significant investment based on the promise of careers in teaching our nation’s children and young people.”

The Ministry of Education doesn’t expect there to be jobs for newly qualified teachers, though it uses words such as “it’s competitive” rather than saying there’s no work.

Teachers hanging on

Why aren’t there enough jobs? The TeachNZ website says the rate of teachers leaving the profession is at its lowest for 10 years and so is the number of vacancies. It puts this down to the “impact of the global economic recession”.

TeachNZ Group Manager Education Workforce Rebecca Elvy says teacher “loss rates” from permanent, full-time jobs – which include teachers leaving temporarily as well as those retiring – have been decreasing – from 12% in 2006 to 9% in 2011. “In real numbers, this means that fewer than 4000 of the 86,600 teachers employed in schooling over 2011 were lost to the profession.”

She confirms that employment rates for new graduates have been falling, with the number getting permanent jobs in their first year dropping sharply from 966 in 2006 to 561 in 2011. Unemployment and school closures compound the problem. A teacher who can’t get work wrote this on the Stuff website: “When people leave the country to get work, their kids go with them. When teachers leave Christchurch to find work because the government is closing schools, the competition for jobs becomes more fierce elsewhere.”

Precarious employment

Of the jobs that do exist, many aren’t permanent or full-time. One academic EA spoke to says some schools have a “try before you buy” attitude. TeachNZ manager Di Davies says almost half (45%) of the 30,000 primary teachers employed over the past three years were in “flexible roles; part-time, fixed term, job share, casual relievers.” Our forecast shows that each year over the next five years, we will need 260 new teachers to meet roll growth, but patterns of employment show they are most likely to come from existing teachers in flexible roles.”

But even relieving jobs are in short supply. Rebecca Elvy says between 2006 and 2011 the number of new graduates getting any kind of teaching work in their first year, including day relief, dropped from 3700 to 3000.

That said, the situation could change quickly. Although right now there’s an “oversupply” it could return to a shortage. In 2012 the rate of teachers leaving the profession permanently was only 2% but it’s been up to 20% at times. The primary school population will keep growing – the government’s 2012 Budget forecast roll growth of 7% in primary schools between 2011 and 2016 – and a great swathe of baby boomers is likely to drop out of the workforce over next 10 years.

Teacher supply

But there’s not an overwhelming supply of new graduates and the number of teachers in training continues to fall. The Ministry of Education’s website says there were 1230 fewer students studying for a bachelor’s degree in primary teacher education in 2011 compared to 2005.

Auckland University’s Deputy Dean of Teacher Education Lexie Grudnoff says enrolments there are slightly down. “This could be influenced by fewer jobs or it could also be due to a number of other factors such as the negative attention education has been getting in the media.”

The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MoBIE) says the number of teachers who completed qualifications dropped from 4240 in 2009 to 3680 in 2010. MoBIE says because the population of children under 15 is projected to increase (by 3.2%), in the long term demand for teachers is stable – though this doesn’t take into account the effect of charter schools, which won’t have to employ qualified teachers, or any influx of graduates of six week training courses like Teach First NZ. Charter schools will also siphon off students from state schools – a further drain on jobs.

Dr Grudnoff says history suggests a boom or bust approach to teacher supply will carry on: “We will continue to switch between over-supply and under-supply.”

Forget Plan B” we need a Plan A

Tertiary Education Union spokesperson Stephen Day says the statistics are there to predict the number of teachers required, but workforce planning seems to be non-existent. “No one seems to take into account that it’s cyclical and if you can just hold on to it for a few years it will all be back to where it was.”

He says the government decides how many graduates it wants for each type of degree, but decisions seem to be made on anecdotal evidence driven by media hype that lasts for about six months before moving on to the next thing: “Whereas teachers was the big issue a few years ago we dropped that like a hot potato and went to builders. We regularly notice that teacher education is one of the ones that pops up a lot, as people say we need more teachers; we need more primary teachers or secondary teachers, or technology teachers, or we need more PE teachers because the All Blacks just lost.”

He says there just doesn’t seem to be a long-term plan “if we want to get class size ratios down, then we need to invest in this regularly every year”.

And it flows through into teacher education programmes, which will lose staff if fewer students are funded. He says it’s crazy to keep highly educated, well respected people out of jobs
(graduates and experienced teachers looking for work) when ” in a few years’ time you’re going to need them all back again but¦ they will have moved on – you’re going to have go and train a whole lot more.”

Waikato University dean of education Roger Moltzen says demand for teachers does come in peaks and troughs, but now it’s tough because teachers staying in jobs longer, with more and more staying on over the age of 65, and at the same time there’s been an increase in teachers returning from overseas.

Looming shortage?

But he says, obviously it’s a relatively finite length of time that people will stay on after 65, so the current situation isn’t permanent, and a lot might leave within a short period, opening up jobs for beginning teachers; it’s even possible to imagine a looming shortage. “We also know that there are more primary school students entering schools up until 2019.” He says part of teacher education should include preparing students for when they leave: “We have a responsibility to ensure people have that understanding, and are not misled.”

But there’s also an onus on prospective students to consider employment opportunities and he suggests they contact the Ministry of Education if they want to know their job prospects. However, they’re likely to get mixed messages from government agencies – the Tertiary Education Commission is still funding a similar number of places and the TeachNZ website continues on an apparent overseas recruitment drive with comments such as “in New Zealand recruitment is done by the schools themselves”.

Tough market

Education Personnel” the Ministry of Education’s preferred employment agency” was cagey about job prospects. Stuart Birch says, “It’s a pretty tough market out there for teachers at the moment” and “there’s a lot of competition”, but he was unable to give any figures.

A barometer on MoBIE’s website shows the outlook for teaching jobs is neither stormy nor sunny but “fair”, and at a higher government level, job shortages don’t seem to be considered a serious problem. Minister of Education Hekia Parata says a teaching qualification is portable, and people can use it to get a job elsewhere.

And the Education Ministry seems happy for teachers to continue in short term and casual relieving jobs so they’re there to plug any future gaps. “Analysis shows that there are more than enough teachers to meet this demand overall,” Rebecca Elvy says.

Practice makes perfect

But graduate teachers’ first years in the classroom are vital – if the only jobs they can get are short term or day relieving, they won’t get the support they need as beginning teachers.

Dr Grudnoff is concerned about the increasing trend to employ new teachers on short term contracts “because of implications for their induction into teaching and for their ongoing professional learning and development”.
Beginning teachers also need the opportunity to put what they have learned into practice, and Waikato University’s Roger Moltzen although many get experience through fixed-term relieving positions, walking into a school to cover for a teacher is quite different from having your own class and a permanent position. “One of the things we are aware of and addressing is what are the demands and challenges of being a relieving teacher” so that graduating students understand what is involved and do not become˜prematurely disappointed’.”

No jobs and not enough teachers?

“An enlightened government would find ways of employing beginning teachers now, while they’re still brimming with enthusiasm,” NZEI president Judith Nowatarski says. “It makes sense to change student teacher ratios and put more teachers into schools while we have the chance, so we don’t lose these new graduates. “And then there are the baby boomers still at the chalkface” with loads of knowledge and experience but weary from decades in the classroom. Why not employ them in an advisory role, or as mentor teachers, freeing up more classroom jobs for new graduates?”

How much of the current problem can be blamed on tertiary institutions enrolling too many students and how much on government policy, including the so-called proliferation of providers?

In an earlier, simpler age there were just six main colleges of education across the country, but radical changes in the 1990s brought in deregulation, a competitive market and new funding policies” and the number ballooned out to almost 80, though it has now settled back to 26 (including early childhood education).

Most mainstream primary teacher education programmes are at six universities, which have now swallowed up the colleges of education, the rest are mostly smaller .

There’s a common perception that universities enrol as many students as they can to boost their funding (bums on seats)” and that still holds true, but only to a point. The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) allocates funding to providers according to “high level priorities” for tertiary education. They can enrol one or two more students than they’re funded for but get only the student’s fees.

The commission doesn’t have statistics relating to workforce planning, so its funding priorities aren’t related to jobs, nor does it monitor post-graduation employment. Instead, a spokesperson says it expects providers to “work with communities to identify supply and demand for training”.

The teachers have their say

Beginning teachers who have forked out $7000 a year for their studies want to know why there’s such a mismatch between the numbers of graduating teachers and the number of available jobs. Many are now lumbered with loans of $30,000 or more and have no prospect of a permanent job.

In March the Education Gazette was advertising 214 primary teacher vacancies, but just 41 were for permanent jobs. Only 19% of new graduates get a job in their first year.

Sara Sabin graduated from Auckland University in 2012. She did a three-year BEd (primary) and has a student loan of $37,000 which she says she’ll be paying it off for the rest of her life. “When I applied for uni I was under the impression there was a massive teacher shortage and there’d be no problems at all getting a job. They said there were more kids than ever and we’d always need more teachers.” Sara has always wanted to be a teacher but is worried about how she’ll get her provisional registration. “That’s why I haven’t gone overseas, I want to stay until I’m fully registered. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else but teaching.” She checks the Education Gazette site every day and has applied for well over 80 jobs from Dannevirke to Kaitaia, but has had just two interviews. The closest she has got was to be shortlisted to one of five for one job and one of nine for another. Sara has been one of 90 applicants, one of 100, and one of 120.

Caitlin Turner did a three year Bachelor of Education online through Canterbury University. She’s been looking for a job in Rotorua since December. As students, her cohort was told there’d been a baby boom so by the time they finished they wouldn’t have any trouble getting work. There was only one student out of a class of 30 who got a job in Rotorua. “I’m a bit annoyed; so many of us expected to get jobs. You don’t expect to finish a degree and have a huge student loan and not get a job; it’s not even easy to get relief work because schools already have their relievers. I’m so sick of hearing: ‘Sorry we’re looking for someone with a bit more experience’.” Caitlin has had relieving work at an early childhood education centre – “it’s all about survival at the moment” – but when EA last talked to her she was over the moon to have a one-term relieving job in a school.

Melanie Porter is looking for a job in Auckland. In 2009 she responded to TeachNZ ads saying there was a shortage of teachers, but she says her provider took on too many students, perhaps expecting a lot to drop off. “My cohort was aged 30 plus so maybe we had a bit more staying power.”  She started looking for work in September and has lost count of the number of jobs she’s applied for, but says it’s at least 50. She has had some interviews” but “when you’re up against hundreds of people and you’re a beginning teacher…” There were 150 applicants for one job, and they wanted to meet her so she travelled two hours out to the school, but in spite of getting down to the top handful, and then the top two” she missed out. “Getting that close” it’s really disheartening.” Everyone in Melanie’s cohort who did get a job had some link with the school, she says” either as a reliever, having done their practicum there, or having a child at the school. But in the school where she did her practicum there are teachers who’ve been there for 30 years and live around the corner. Teachers in general are happy where they are and don’t want to take the risk of moving, she says. “Maybe if more incentive was given to those teachers to do something different, that would open up a gateway.”

Another option: a “no brainer” – is funding more teachers and having smaller classes to give new graduates a chance. Now she’s trying to get some experience by working for free, helping out in the library at her son’s school. “I’ll ask if I can sit in a class and help out.” But it may not lead anywhere, given that she knows a woman who’s been volunteering at a school for six years. “I can’t afford to spend that amount of time out of the workforce and that amount of money on a degree and not get anything out of it,” she says. “It’s what I wanted to do when I was at school myself but I didn’t get serious about it until I had my own child. It sounds really cliched but it’s that whole making-a-difference thing and you do get a reward out of seeing kids get it.” As it is, she worries about her $30,000 student loan – and the prospect of starving.

Bridget O’Leary has been looking for work in Nelson since the middle of 2012. She did two years training in Dunedin but moved to Tauranga for her final year, where she got a job straight away at the school she was posted to. But since the family moved to Nelson, she’s had big trouble getting work. She started looking for a job teaching older age groups but is now applying for anything that comes up. There were more than 100 applications for one job and 18 of her applications were sent back in the mail. “Oh man, gutted. It brings you down. It’s really hard to keep a positive attitude.” She was shortlisted for an interview from over 50 applications, and the only reason she didn’t get it was that they chose someone with more experience. “It’s quite annoying because how are you supposed to get experience if they won’t hire you?” Bridget is now widening her search to Motueka and Blenheim and wants to get her registration as soon as possible; a recent relieving job at her local school only served to remind her what she was missing. “I love teaching so much and just miss it so much, it makes me cry sometimes.”