Northwest Arkansas school districts are feeling the impact of a tight labor market and low unemployment rate as they hire staff for the upcoming school year, according to officials.
June is a peak month for hiring teachers while classified staff members -- such as bus drivers, office staff, food service and maintenance workers and nurses -- are hired throughout the summer.
While there isn't a shortage of teachers at the region's four largest school districts, some districts reported the number of people applying for positions is smaller than in previous years. However, administrators from all four districts -- Springdale, Bentonville, Rogers and Fayetteville -- said they have concerns about filling jobs such as bus drivers, child nutrition workers, nurses and substitute teachers.
Smaller school districts have the same concerns, but in addition must compete with the neighboring large districts that can offer higher pay.
Northwest Arkansas had a seasonally adjusted average unemployment rate of 2.2% for the first quarter of the year, the lowest the area has seen in the past three decades, according to Mike Harvey, chief operating officer for the Northwest Arkansas Council. In comparison, the unemployment rate was 3.1% in Arkansas and 3.7% in the U.S., in March, he said.
About 15,000 people in the region are employed in education, Harvey said. According to the council, the unemployment rate for preschool, elementary, middle, secondary and special education teachers in the Fayetteville, Springdale and Rogers metropolitan area was 1.5% in the fourth quarter of 2021, the most recent data available.
On the surface, the unemployment rate tells how much slack there is in the labor market, but it takes a deeper look at the labor participation rate to get a clear picture, Harvey said. In Northwest Arkansas, the labor participation rate for people age 16 and up is 64.7%, compared with 58% for the state and 63.2% for the U.S., he said. Nationally, the participation rate has been creeping down over the past decade as the workforce ages, he said.
"Unequivocally, I can say the labor market is tight here, but I think it's like that across the country," Harvey said.
There hasn't been a significant change in the supply of new teachers graduating from the University of Arkansas in recent years, according to Ed Bengston, head of the university's department of curriculum and instruction. A total of 208 teacher candidates completed their licensure requirements this spring, compared with 207 in spring 2021, he said.
There are certain specialty areas, such as foreign language and high school math, where more graduates are needed, he said.
While it's unlikely the large districts in Northwest Arkansas will experience teacher shortages, the smaller rural districts in other parts of the state struggle -- partly because of the disparities in salary, Bengston said. There are places where a retiring teacher will probably be making barely as much as a beginning teacher in Northwest Arkansas, he said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2019 signed a law raising Arkansas' minimum teacher pay by $4,000 to a total of $36,000 by the 2022-23 school year. In comparison, beginning teacher pay at Northwest Arkansas' four largest districts ranges from $48,000 to $50,000.
Robert Maranto, an endowed chair in leadership at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, described the state's teacher shortage as Swiss cheese. There are generally plenty of teacher candidates at even the smaller districts in Northwest Arkansas, but isolated rural districts and urban districts in other parts of the state may have trouble filling openings, he said.
Most teachers work within 90 minutes of where they went to college, so districts near a state college that produces a lot of teachers like the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville don't usually have problems finding enough educators, he said.
There are also certain areas where there are shortages, such as English as a second language, special education and secondary science, technology, engineering and math, he said.
While the covid-19 pandemic created challenges for teachers, there were somewhat fewer retirements than expected because educators tend to be risk averse, Maranto said.
"Covid made everyone feel threatened," he said. "If you're fairly risk averse, you don't quote for another job or retire in a period of uncertainty."
The tight labor market has reduced the size of the Bentonville School District's candidate pools, said spokeswoman Leslee Wright. The school has felt the impact across all divisions, from transportation to classroom teachers, she said.
Bentonville also has experienced an increase in resignations and retirements the past two years after front-line employees felt the effects of the covid-19 pandemic, she said.
As of Friday, the district had hired 80 new teachers for the upcoming school year with several positions yet to fill, she said. Since Feb. 1, the district has received more than 1,000 applications for teaching positions, she said.
To recruit top talent in certified staff, Bentonville has participated in college career fairs across the state, Wright said. The district's minimum teacher salary for certified employees is $48,755 for 2022-23.
The Rogers School District experienced a shortage of bus drivers, nurses, substitute teachers and after-school care workers at times over the past year, according to Roger Hill, assistant superintendent of human resources.
Hill said he has noticed there have been fewer openings and less employee movement in and out of the district during the past two years of the pandemic.
"People were just staying put," he said.
This year seems to be getting back to what a normal hiring season would have looked like three or four years ago, Hill said. The district anticipates hiring 125 certified and 50 classified positions this year, he said.
Rogers is getting an adequate number of certified applications and is hiring good people, but the candidate pool isn't as deep as it has been in the past, he said. For example, elementary teaching positions are the most competitive in the district, he said. Last year, the district had 300 candidates apply to fill 25 to 30 elementary teaching slots, while this year it had 205 candidates, he said.
The candidate pool is thinner is areas such as special education and high school math, he said.
Among classified staff, the district is looking to hire an electrician, nurses, food service employees, instructional assistants and maintenance workers, he said.
Rogers attracts employees by earning a reputation of treating people right, Hill said. The district ranked No. 1 on Forbes' list of best employers in Arkansas for 2021. The district has also adjusted its salary schedule to stay competitive, adding $750 to teacher base pay and an appropriate percentage to classified staff pay this year, he said. Teachers also got two $750 bonuses this year, he said.
The starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor's degree is $48,000, he said.
Hill said he would like to see more people choose a career in education to offset downward trends. Teaching is a very rewarding career where people can make a difference, he said.
The Fayetteville School District didn't have any trouble filling teaching positions last year, but did struggle with continual openings for custodians and child nutrition and transportation staff members, said Greg Mones, director of human services.
"I don't know that it will get better anytime soon," he said.
The district is focusing on hiring certified staff in June and will shift to hiring classified staff later in the summer, he said. Fayetteville isn't seeing as many teacher applications as it has in the past, but there are still plenty of candidates, he said.
Fayetteville has the highest starting salary for teachers in the region, which gives it a competitive edge, Mones said. The School Board voted in January to increase the starting salary for teachers by 5% to $50,000, effective July 1. Classified staff members will receive a $1.50-per-hour raise.
Fayetteville has also decided to offer full benefits and health insurance to part-time employees to attract more staff members, Mones said. Attracting bus drivers is a focus area year-round, he said. The district increased driver pay to $19.30 an hour and trains people to help them acquire a commercial driver's license if needed, he said.
The Springdale School District experienced a shortage of bus drivers and substitute teachers this past school year, according to Kelly Hayes, deputy superintendent of finance for the district. There were also openings in the child nutrition and custodial departments that went unfilled, he said. However, the district didn't experience a shortage of teachers, he said.
The number of candidates applying for certified positions for this fall is similar to previous years, according to Superintendent Jared Cleveland.
"The process is going well," he said. "We have some excellent, highly qualified candidates."
Hayes said he is concerned about hiring bus drivers and substitute teachers. The district is losing some drivers to retirement, he said.
Schools are competing with the food service industry for child nutrition workers and with the trucking industry for bus drivers with commercial licenses, Hayes said.
Springdale has one of the strongest certified salary schedules in the state, and also emphasizes the community's diversity and that the district is a good place to work, Hayes said. Administrators next week will recommend to the School Board adding $1,500 to the base teacher salary schedule, he said; if approved, the district's minimum salary for teachers will be $50,282, slightly higher than Fayetteville.
The region's smaller school districts face hiring challenges, too.
It's a high-turnover year in the Decatur School District, a district of about 570 students, said Superintendent Steven Watkins. Decatur is looking to fill 15 to 20 certified positions out of a total certified staff of 52, he said.
Most of the turnover is teachers leaving for other school districts in the area, Watkins said.
Decatur, however, has received good responses to its job postings, he said. The School Board met Tuesday specifically for the purpose of hiring people, and Watkins said they would meet again in a couple of weeks for the same reason.
"We want to get them hired as quickly as possible," he said.
Decatur's minimum teacher salary is increasing from $34,900 this past school year to $36,000 -- the minimum salary set by the state for the 2022-23 school year.
Decatur offers a tuition reimbursement program for those teachers trying to expand their education. Decatur also offers an annual longevity stipend of $500 after three years, $750 after five years, $1,000 after 10 years and $1,250 after 15 years.
Greenland School District, a district of about 700 students, has two middle and two high school teaching positions to fill, said Superintendent Andrea Martin.
Most years, the majority of Greenland's turnover is due to teachers leaving for one of the area's four large school districts. This year, however, that hasn't been the case; several employees who have resigned said they're not sure they want to continue teaching at all, Martin said.
"So it's kind of concerning as far as the profession," she said.
Greenland's starting teacher salary is increasing from $36,000 to $37,200 this year, Martin said.