'Missing' Millennials and the Great Workforce Divide
School leaders lament: Why are we unable to retain our young teachers?
BY ANDREA F. ANTHONY/School Administrator, December 2018

Andrea Anthony (front right), who oversees human resources in Rutherford County, Tenn., with Maryam Hill, a second-year assistant principal at Riverdale High School (and a millennial).
Millennials’ attitudes and their attendance at work pose a professional challenge that all of us are facing in education. Our goal in the Rutherford County Schools in Tennessee is to keep millennial staff in our workforce and to minimize significant turnover from year to year.

At the moment, of our district’s 3,100 certified employees, at least 1,250 are millennials — individuals born in the 20-year period that begins in 1982. That constitutes about 40 percent of our certified staff in a school district that educates 46,000 students, the fourth largest in Tennessee.

Rutherford County Schools is located in a college town where our local university, Middle Tennessee State University, was named the “normal” college for teachers in the early 1900s. Even with this distinction, the university has experienced a 45 percent decline in licensed teacher graduates over the last decade. Some educator preparation programs nationwide are seeing a more substantial drop-off in students completing teacher-licensing requirements.

Our district has experienced a 9 percent turnover rate among professional staff in recent years. This includes retirements, resignations, non-renewals and contract expirations.

What can we do as a school district to allay the supply shortage?

Homegrown Talent
We are using several strategies in Rutherford County to attend to our millennials. We partner with our district’s Career and Technical Division to manage a “grow your employee program.” Courses on teaching as a profession are offered at the district’s high schools, giving our students a sampling of what an education career is all about. We are working to provide incentives and college scholarships for these students to become educators. This tactic can be significant because more than 60 percent of our teachers take jobs within 15 miles of their hometown.

Meanwhile, we are aware that a national report on students’ ACT performance in 2017 revealed only 5 percent of the 2 million test-takers in the U.S. listed education as their career choice. This raises questions about the talent level of those opting for education careers — is teaching not attracting the top talent?

The same ACT report showed those expressing interest in education careers mostly had below-average scores in math and science — two areas where we have the greatest personnel needs. Meanwhile, 95 percent of those students with education in mind as a career are interested foremost in early childhood and elementary education. Most are female. We must rely on our teacher preparation programs at the university level to help us to match our shortage needs with students preparing for classroom management.

Common Absences
We also are charged with the strenuous task of maintaining a high-level pool of substitutes to cover certified absences. On any given day in Rutherford County, we must fill anywhere between 200 and 300 classroom positions. Of these, 60 percent of the requests for substitutes are made by our millennials — who are more likely to call in sick than teachers in our other generational groups. Older generations tend to hold tight to their sick days in hopes of benefiting at retirement.
We believe this behavior exists among millennials because they do not plan to stay in education as a lifelong pursuit.

With almost 70 percent of our workforce having fewer than 15 years of experience, we now are feeling the impact of a younger workforce. We deal with approximately 200 leaves a year for Family Medical Leave Act and long-term/extended leaves. These absences create a challenge for our contracted substitute provider. With the upward trend in the economy recently, competition exists among local employers for those who would be teacher candidates and substitutes.

Are there employment issues considered non-negotiable by current teachers and candidates that could help us retain millennial staff? A few of our most recent districtwide surveys match what the Society of Human Resource Management has found more broadly in the workforce: Millennials leave their jobs due to a perceived lack of career advancement opportunities.

Growth Options
In Rutherford County, we are trying to develop teachers’ leadership skills to offer avenues for growth. We have a mentoring program at the school level to match millennials with more seasoned educators. We rotate our educators through different roles so they can obtain varied expertise in such areas as instructional leadership and professional learning community team leadership.

This professional development is tied to better compensation (salary and benefits) and ensures our total compensation is competitive with others in K-12 education. The key is to address compensation gaps among entry-level salaries. We can help our employees develop skills that stretch them en route to earning promotions.

Assistant Superintendent Andrea Anthony (center) of the Rutherford County, Tenn., Schools flanked by millennial teachers in a computer lab at Blackman Elementary School in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Millennials say they want a more flexible work environment with remote work options that typically do not align with a career in education. The lack of flexibility and remote work opportunities are reasons why 27 percent of millennials are self-employed and nearly a third feel they earn enough money to lead their lives as desired. They find family-friendly workplace policies make it easier to balance both life and job issues.

We offer career advancement opportunities and a differentiated pay plan for our hard-to-staff teaching areas to try to retain our millennial teachers. Creating teacher leaders in the buildings and across the district is a continued focus. Teacher leaders present on instructional topics to other teachers in their buildings and serve as practitioners at our districtwide, two-day summer in-service.

Teacher leaders also can advance as instructional coaches and assistant principals — career moves to give them opportunities to impact instruction. There may be chances to serve on building leadership teams, as department chairs and as professional learning community leaders. Teachers with experience may serve as mentors to new or struggling teachers by sharing best practices.

Pay Incentives
Rutherford County’s differentiated pay plan focuses on recruitment of hard-to-staff areas. A teacher new to our county (mainly millennials) or a teacher who is not teaching in a hard-to-staff area is eligible for differentiated pay if certified in the content/grade area. The teacher must hold a valid apprentice, professional or out-of-state teaching license with a 7th-12th-grade-level endorsement in at least one of these areas: math, physics, chemistry, world language, English language learning or board-certified behavior analyst.

Those meeting the criteria are eligible for a one-time signing bonus of $3,000 and an early-signing bonus of $2,000 if they sign a contract before March 1 for the coming school year. For teachers of English language learners, there is a $1,500 signing bonus. Our differentiated pay plan offers a $2,000 stipend in addition to the 210 days worked for a response to intervention coach.

These pay incentives can help our sizeable millennial teacher population earn more money and grow professionally through new experiences.

PricewaterhouseCoopers conducted a study recently that revealed millennials’ belief that productivity should be measured by the output of work performed, not by the number of hours worked. They view work not as a place but as a thing. They want their colleagues to be a second family and want a workplace of like-minded employees. This would be what we refer to in education as a “good fit” in culture.

A 2011 Pew Research survey revealed that of the 800 millennial respondents, only 30 percent viewed their job as a career. If you break the data down further, of those between 18 and 24, only 11 percent saw their job as a career. Millennials do not view turnover or failure to stay with a job as a negative mark. In our district’s experience, millennials report themselves as hard working and loyal in their current placement. They do not see a significant divide in the employer’s perception of them and their commitment.

According to a study in 2016 by State Street Global Advisors, 60 percent of millennials have changed jobs in the last five years up to four times. With almost 80 million millennials, they will make up 50 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2030. We must discover better ways to retain them as teachers. The more educated the millennial, the more likely he or she will look for new employment opportunities.

Innovative Thinking
The millennials recognized during the Great Recession of 2007 through 2009 that commitment on the job did not prevent widespread worker layoffs. They carry the mindset of multiple career opportunities. With Rutherford County annually gaining about 1,100 students, we have been adding more than 100 teaching and certified support positions for the start of each new year. That will require us to be innovative in our recruitment, retainment and development of our teachers to fulfill our district’s mission of “empowering today’s students to grasp tomorrow’s opportunities.”

ANDREA ANTHONY is an assistant superintendent of human resources and support services for Rutherford County Schools in Murfreesboro, Tenn.