A growing problem looms for Australian schools as teachers flee

Photo: AAP

Last year I published a column about the dramatic teacher shortage in Australia.

As I looked at more education data in the past year, my worries grew even more. It’s time to revisit the issue and show you a few more scary data points.

There are 391,000 workers in Australia classified as schoolteachers. That’s 3.3 per cent of all workers captured by the 2021 Census.

As the population of school-aged children continues to grow, we will need more than 391,000 school teachers by 2034.

Victoria (plus 10 per cent) and the ACT (plus 10 per cent) will see the highest growth in demand for teachers. I decided to include everyone under 18 in this table since early childhood teachers are also in short supply.

The logic is simple. If we grow the population aged under 18 by 6 per cent, we must increase the school teacher cohort by 6 per cent just to maintain current teacher to student ratios. This means we must add 23,000 workers to reach 414,000 teachers by 2034.

You would have seen recent reports showing how many teachers are leaving the classroom behind for a career switch. More teachers than ever before claim they intend to leave the industry at some point. On top of the 23,000 additional teachers, we must replace the career shifters.

And, due to simple demographics, secondary school teachers and special needs teachers will be in particularly high demand.

A few months ago, I introduced you to the concept of the retirement cliff.  It’s a simple way of estimating how many workers a profession will lose to retirement in the next decade.

Nationwide, 80 per cent of workers are aged 15 to 54 and will likely be part of the workforce in the coming decade, 15 per cent are aged 55 to 64 and are likely to retire in the coming decade, and 5 per cent are already of retirement age (65+) but are still working.

The higher the share of the workforce aged 55-64, the more job openings will occur.

As the table above shows, secondary school teachers (17 per cent) and special needs teachers (20 per cent) will lose more staff than the nationwide average (15 per cent) to retirement.

Let’s throw in a few more bits of information to scare you even more.

All teaching jobs in the chart below are listed as currently experiencing a nationwide skills shortage according to official government data and demand is predicted to continue to rise.

Nationwide, a third of all workers (33 per cent) are overseas-born migrants. In the teaching professions the share of migrants is much lower.

For some jobs, filling a skills shortage through migration is easier than it is for others. Teaching requires local qualifications and often local knowledge (think history teaching) as well as excellent English language skills.

While migration might be a part of the solution to creating more teachers, I am convinced we will need to train the vast majority of our teachers in-house. This means we must find ways to encourage young people into the profession as well as opening up more alternative pathways into teaching for career switchers.

The current and future teacher shortage comes at an inopportune point in time.

Over the past decades ever more households rely on two incomes, meaning there are fewer adults around to educate their children all the time.

No problem, we just send kids to school and kindergarten at a younger age and have them attend for longer hours each day. Simple enough (if forbiddingly expensive and potentially emotionally challenging) for the parents but hard for the schools and teachers.

They must take over educational tasks that traditionally were taught by the family unit and the broader neighbourhood and friendship network – this additional pressure on teachers hardly makes the profession more appealing.

Also, the restructuring of our national economy increases the demand for highly educated workers. Teachers are a crucial piece of the puzzle to ensure our workforce is skilled enough.

The skills needed are not just related to language comprehension or STEM subjects. Rather school is now the place where kids socialise with each other as play outside of school hours increasingly takes place online.

This fixation with screens has severe negative consequences (The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt is a must-read on the topic) and must be countered by schools. How? By giving kids during school hours much more time for free play. Free play is crucial to develop social skills and great for mental health.

Since the pandemic, our schools have recorded godawful retention rates. We see more kids are falling through the cracks and are turning their backs on education.

Now would be the time to open up alternative educational offerings for these most at risk kids. Guess what would be needed for this? Fast acting politicians, funding, and adequate buildings are crucial but without highly skilled and motivated teachers, these kids hardly stand a chance.

The burden of the teacher shortage will not be felt equally throughout society. Private schools will be less impacted by the skills shortage than public schools as they have some sort of financial wiggle room to attract teachers. Just one more kick in the guts for social cohesion in Australia.

Considering that education still is the best indicator for your future income, a teacher shortage that will disproportionately hit the bottom ranks of society will further cement the economic divide in the country.

If we want to continue to tell a story about giving everyone a fair go, tackling the teacher shortage would be a great political campaign talking point – just in case any politicians are reading this column.

Demographer Simon Kuestenmacher is a co-founder of The Demographics Group. His columns, media commentary and public speaking focus on current socio-demographic trends and how these impact Australia. His latest book aims to awaken the love of maps and data in young readers. Follow Simon on Twitter (X), FacebookLinkedIn for daily data insights in short format.

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