The 2016 – 2017 school year will undoubtedly go down as one of the most significant in Nova Scotia’s educational history. After years of neglect, teachers’ collective frustration over working conditions and perceived lack of voice in educational decision making boiled over into the province’s first ever teachers’ strike.
The strike was ended by an act of legislation, rammed through province house by the governing Liberal party under Stephen McNeil. The ensuing public sector outrage at how the situation was handled became one of the key issues in the recent election, and may well have been a contributing factor to the government almost being ousted from power. Although the McNeil Liberals held onto their majority, they did so by the narrowest of margins in an election that, even with the controversy, saw record low voter turnout.
Despite the near upset, the Liberals, it seems, are not planning on softening their stance on how they handle negotiations with unions across the province. The standard line of “We will live within our means!” was something that the Premier repeated numerous times over his first three and a half years in power, and it would seem will be a guiding light for his upcoming term. Even though his party managed to find somewhere in the vicinity of $70 million to boost up pre-election promises, one would anticipate that the relationship between McNeil and organized labour will continue to be cool and confrontational.
Now, obviously, an election win should point to the majority of voters in Nova Scotia supporting this approach but a closer look at the numbers will tell other tales. Receiving 40% of the vote from about half the eligible voters in the province is hardly a resounding victory. Regardless, though, the deed, as they say, is done, and all public sector employees, including teachers, will need to face the reality of dealing with an anti-labour government for the foreseeable future.
There will always be a certain sector of the population that remains staunchly “anti-union”. These camps see unionized workers, particularly those in the public sector, as overpaid, underworked, and somewhat pampered in their positions. However, even the staunchest anti-unionist must take a moment to consider the teachers strike as a foreboding sign. Yes, the job action was brought about by the Liberal approach to what can only be loosely described as collective bargaining, but during the course of that action, teachers spoke out like never before about deteriorating morale, lack of authentic voice in decision making, and increasingly challenging classroom conditions. These realities were certainly not caused by the Liberals, but they do now wear the burden of addressing them.
And therein lies the crux, as they say. If the next four years looks anything like the last three, the Liberals will continue to erode contractual benefits for employees. Although perhaps a popular stance with some, it is a dangerous one. Not necessarily for McNeil politically, but for the Province as a whole. Because as much as his supporters may have trumpeted his methods, there is one question that no one outside of the profession seems to be considering.
What happens if we run out of teachers?
Now, I know that many of you may be viewing this as an impossibility, as this seems to be one area of the workforce where there is always an abundance of employees to choose from. However, teacher shortages are a reality in a number of areas right across the world, and as demand increases for highly trained professionals to educate the next generation, we need to be aware that we could, if we are not careful, very well find ourselves in a pretty serious bind.
Just a few days ago, a report was released by the New York State Teachers Retirement System which painted a fairly bleak picture for employers in that state who might be looking to fill classroom positions. According to the report, nearly one-third of their teachers could be eligible to retire within the next five years. Even while these folks look to move out of the profession, the numbers of young people looking to get into the profession has steadily declined. In fact, according to the same report, the number of students enrolling in teacher education programs fell by almost 50% between the 2009 and 2014.
The question of whether there is a National teacher shortage in the US was recently given some close consideration by a group known as The Hamilton Project. In a report co-authored by Stanford University’s Thomas Dee and University of Washington’s Dan Goldhaber, the issue was revealed as being a tremendously complex one. Although the researchers found that there was no evidence per se of a widespread teacher shortage, there was strong evidence to suggest that many localized shortages did exist across the US.
To try and combat the problem, The US Department of Education has gone so far as to create a Teacher Shortage Area list which identifies subject area shortages on a state by state basis. In an effort to incentivize the profession, graduates who take positions in these areas are eligible to have portions or, in some cases, all of their student loan monies forgiven.
Our friends across the pond find themselves in a very similar situation. A news report out of the UK recently lamented the difficulty schools were having in recruiting teachers. According to the National Association of Head Teachers, research showed school leaders either struggling to or failing to recruit teachers in 8 out of 10 cases last year. Their general secretary, Russell Hobby, also cited retention as a key issue, claiming that about 30% of teachers in the UK leave the profession within the first 5 years. A recent government report on the issue referred to the shortage as a crisis and cited a number of contributing factors including heavier workloads, punitive education policies, and decreasing relative salaries. This is despite the government offering a fairly aggressive bursary program to get students into teacher education programs for a number of years now.
Some may dismiss this issue as perhaps being rather NIMBYesque, but there are a number of factors currently at work right here at home that may make the idea of a teacher shortage a bit less ephemeral.
In 2016, Global News reported teaching as one of the top eight “jobs of the future” in the country, despite having one of the lowest median starting salaries. This was mostly because there was an expectation of high demand. However, Nova Scotia was one of three provinces where demand was actually going to remain stagnant, at least in the short term.
When it comes to financial compensation, Nova Scotia teachers ranked 6th in the country at the end of 2016. Considering the current imposed contract, that ranking is not likely to improve over the next few years. By the end of this current deal in 2019, teachers in Nova Scotia will have seen an average increase of about 1.1% per year in wages over the previous 10, while inflation will have risen by somewhere in the vicinity of 1.7% per year over the same time period.
One of the key issues that was raised during the job action of 2016-17 was that of working conditions. Over the course of the conflict, many stories emerged about teachers struggling with increased demands of both the students and the employer. Just last week, Canadian Press reporter Michael Tutton broke a story on violent incidents in Nova Scotia schools, indicating that last year staff faced violent acts or threats of violent acts 1,800 times.
So, stagnant wage packages that do not keep pace with inflation, an increase in workload and violence in schools, and a poor employment outlook at a time when other jurisdictions are actively and aggressively recruiting. Add a government that seems intent on further eroding benefits into to the mix, and you create an employment environment that could hardly be described as attractive.
Although having only 20% of the population support their ideology, the McNeil Liberals have won the day, at least for the time being. Achieving a second term in office as a majority government is an achievement of some merit, certainly, and I will give credit where it is due. However, the victory came at a significant cost, including 7 seats and two key cabinet ministers. If you add the damage done to labour relations in this province, the victory does seem a bit Pyrrhic.
The issues raised by teachers have not gone away, nor will they be solved by heavy handed bargaining. If McNeil continues down this path of undervaluing his own workforce, we may find ourselves in the same state as so many other jurisdictions when it comes to recruiting and retaining teachers. Convincing young people to stay in Nova Scotia is a challenging feat. Convincing young people to move here seems darn near impossible.
Politics aside, I am not sure we want to support any action that is a contributing factor in convincing them to leave.