Scenario Planning: Examining Education Workforce Trends

The Great Resignation, The Great Reshuffle, Quiet Quitting—all terms coined to describe a quickly changing workforce. The tumult of the past two-and-a-half years has spurred early retirements, hybrid and fully remote work arrangements, and a rethinking of life priorities. The quest to recruit and retain talent has intensified as the national unemployment rate, at 3.5% in October, is at a 50-year low. The education workforce has been buffeted more than most, leaving teachers, administrators, and school leaders exhausted and questioning their futures. What’s ahead for schools as they seek to recover from this challenging time?

In this blog post, I will examine current workforce trends, as well as forecasts for what lies ahead, to set the stage for school workforce scenario planning. I’ll suggest some “what if” questions that school leaders should explore in building best-, moderate-, and worst-case scenarios for their schools.

What if…the pipeline for teachers continues to narrow?

Before the pandemic, schools experienced subject-specific teacher shortages and teacher preparation programs noted steep declines in participation. According to data collected by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the number of people completing a teacher-education program declined by almost a third between the years 2008–2009 and 2018–2019. 

Did the pandemic accelerate this decline even further? Three researchers—Tuan Nguyen, an assistant professor at Kansas State University; Chanh Lam, a data analyst and Ph.D. student at Kansas State; and Paul Bruno, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign—reviewed available data to assess current teacher shortages. They estimate that there are 36,500 teaching vacancies in the U.S. and that 163,500 positions are held by teachers who are not certified. The impact of these shortages is not evenly spread though, with shortages worse in the South than in the Northeast. Schools can identify specific numbers in their state by accessing a map the researchers built.

Suggested action for schools: To begin building scenarios, first assess your current teaching workforce. Identify vulnerabilities given projected retirements as well as areas in which you are already having difficulty recruiting. Examine teacher shortages for your state and the competition in your recruiting market. Develop best-, moderate-, and worst-case scenarios for how your workforce could be impacted over the next five years.

What if…faculty and staff turnover increases?

What about the stability of the current education workforce as schools emerge from pandemic pressures? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 300,000 public school teachers and staff left the education field from February 2020 through May of 2022. Although there aren’t yet definitive numbers for independent schools, a recent NAIS Snapshot Survey identified that about 16% of responding schools reported faculty and staff leaving for factors relating to COVID-19 and/or a polarized climate.

Joshua Bleiberg, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University, explored available national and state data to understand the rate of turnover in the later part of the pandemic, after schools rehired for positions laid off in the first year. Although the data was incomplete, they found that by March 2022, employment levels were 4% below what they had been pre-pandemic. However, the numbers continue to remain in flux as public schools increase their hiring using pandemic-related funds. A recent Rand study investigated projected public school shortages for the 2022–2023 school year and found that “three-quarters of the districts said they expect a shortage, but most of them (58%) said it would be a small shortage. Only 17% of districts anticipated a large shortage of teachers.”

Suggested action for schools: Expand your scenarios by examining turnover in your school over the past decade. Are there any patterns by age, race/ethnicity, gender, time of year, or school-specific factors? Conduct exit interviews to identify emerging themes to build into your scenarios or consider establishing a retention committee to better understand what employees most seek now.

What if…hybrid or fully remote work arrangements become the preferred modes of work for employees?

Schools depend on faculty and staff to work on-site, yet recruiting for this mode of work could get more difficult in the years ahead, notably because of the acceleration of hybrid and fully remote work options during the pandemic. In their study on why working from home may be here to stay, researchers Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, Shelby Buckman, and Steven J. Davis note that pre-pandemic, adoption of various “work from home” modes doubled approximately every 15 years. The pandemic super-charged this, with adoption of various work-from-home protocols increasing at a rate equal to 30 years of pre-pandemic growth. Through their Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes, they identified a variety of other remote work trends including:
  • As of June 2022, about 15% of full-time employees are fully remote, 55% are full-time on-site, and 30% are in a hybrid arrangement.
  • For those employers allowing hybrid arrangements, 2.3 and 2.4 days per week of work from home is becoming the norm.
  • There are geographic differences in adoption of hybrid or fully remote work modes with work from home being much more common in major cities than in smaller cities and towns.
  • Current levels of working from home are highest for the information, finance, and professional and business services sectors.
Suggested action for schools: Imagine ways you could make working arrangements more flexible and expand your scenarios to forecast how these changes could drive faculty recruitment and retention.

What if…school switching increases, driven by opportunities for increased pay and benefits?

Like most organizations, schools see a fair share of turnover for reasons such as relocation, advancement, or school culture. As the job market in the U.S. tightens, could increasing levels of compensation in the market drive competition between schools? We know that many public-school districts are using pandemic funds to increase salaries and offer performance bonuses. A recent New York Times article highlighted measures some school districts are taking to recruit and retain teachers. In Colorado, the Department of Higher Education is attempting to stem rural school shortages by offering $10,000 stipends to teacher candidates who work in rural communities for a year. Wake County Public Schools (NC) are offering special education teachers $3,500 signing bonuses if they stay in the district. And some school districts are tackling the problem of affordable housing for educators. The Austin, Texas, independent school district is hoping to use a portion of revenues from a local tax increase as mortgage assistance for teachers and to repurpose warehouses and other district buildings for affordable teacher housing.

Although not focused on education exclusively, a Pew Research study explored pandemic-related job switching. They found that about 2.5% of workers on average switched jobs each month from January through March 2022. They also found that a majority of those switching jobs during the pandemic gained higher pay because of the switch. “From April 2020 to March 2021, some 51% of job switchers saw an increase in real earnings over the same months the previous year. On the other hand, among workers who did not change employers, the share reporting an increase in real earnings decreased from 54% over the 2020–2021 period to 47% over the 2021–2022 period.”

Pew also found that age and education played into who switched. Less educated and younger workers are the most transient part of the workforce. Workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education switched at a rate of 2.1%, about the same as in 2019. Tenure in jobs matters, too. Those who had been on the job less than a year were more likely to consider switching than those who have longer tenures.
Suggested action for schools: Review NAIS’s Teacher Jobs-To-Be-Done research to expand your scenarios to include what could affect recruitment and retention in each of the three jobs.

What if…people increasingly choose independent or gig work instead of traditional full- and part-time employment?

In the early days of the pandemic as people lost jobs, many chose to take on gig work for both security and flexibility. Will that trend continue, or was it simply a means to an end? A recent McKinsey study examined generational differences in how people are currently working, and not surprisingly, the youngest workers, those aged 18–24, are much more likely to be employed in one or more independent job arrangements than older workers. The research uncovered that, while 36% of all workers are employed in independent work of some sort, 51% of workers in this age group are working this way. In addition, 28% chose this type of employment because they enjoy the work and 24% say that they like the autonomy and flexibility it provides. Still, like generations before them, a majority (56%) say that they would move to permanent or noncontract work if they could find it.

Suggested action for schools: Track employment patterns for your youngest faculty and staff members. What are their retention patterns? Where do they go after they leave your school? Expand your scenarios to include potential scenarios for the youngest and fastest-growing sector of the workforce.
As you continue scenario planning, consider these questions around the changing workforce:
  • What if mental health issues continue to affect the education workforce and their ability to thrive?
  • What if smart machines provide a way to remove tasks from faculty and staff roles, freeing up valuable time for their most important work, and/or more collaboration?
  • What if a significant number of the retired education workforce seeks part-time working arrangements in schools?
  • What if faculty and staff sharing becomes a more realistic way to build a school workforce?
Good luck developing scenarios to guarantee long-term sustainability of your most important resource—your people.
Want to get more ideas about scenario planning? Don’t miss last month’s blog post, “Scenario Planning: 4 Trends to Know for Sustainable Enrollment.”
Picture of NAIS.Models.AuthorPreviewViewModel.
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.