Shortage of reliable subs creates market for staffing

By Dan Linehan
Special to Delaware Business Times

Every morning before school, the call goes out for New Castle County substitute teachers through automated phone lines and online messages from a New Castle hub. Following a national trend, all four major districts in the county now rely on staffing companies to find, train and assign subs.

The districts’ difficulties filling substitute positions created a business opportunity for staffing companies like Kelly Services, which supplies substitutes to three of New Castle County’s four largest school districts. There’s an art to filling classrooms, said Scott Apsey, the company’s vice president and practice leader, as substitutes can choose which schools they work in but sometimes need a nudge.

“There is a bit of salesmanship that goes in to getting people to work on a day or at a school they wouldn’t normally go to,” Apsey said.

There’s a science to finding subs, too. Because the goal is to fill as many classrooms as possible, much of Kelly’s attention is focused on schools where it’s harder to find subs. In Delaware, pay is set by the state, creating little incentive to take harder assignments.

Not that it’s easy anywhere. A strong labor market is offering more lucrative options for would-be subs. The pay in Delaware is $66 a day unless you have either a bachelor’s degree or a teaching certificate, in which cases the pay rises to $83 a day or $104 a day, respectively.

Legislators recently tweaked the payment of substitutes, but major improvements are costly and the issue doesn’t have the same visibility as others in education. Substitutes are not represented by an education union.

The experience of substitutes, both in their pay and work conditions, provides clues as to why districts
in Delaware and elsewhere turn to staffing companies to find subs.

Subbing not seen as career

While she was in college, Rachel Savage started studying French language education, but became enamored with Japanese and switched majors. She still wants to teach, but has to pursue alternative licensure and is substitute teaching to earn classroom experience. Though subbing is not lucrative, her time in front of a class has been valuable.

“I was an education minor in college and none of that could prepare me for the classroom,” Savage said. “I was thinking that I would go into a classroom and, even if I wasn’t the real teacher, if I said to sit down and quiet down they’d listen to me.”

In that, she was mistaken. Many students, she said, are inclined to consider requests from substitutes
as mere suggestions.

Like most subs working for staffing companies, Savage can pick assignments ahead of time through a website maintained by her employer, ESS, an educational staffing company that works with the Red Clay Consolidated School District. But her experience with this system was uneven. Each school has different practices and many classrooms were chaotic.

For example, her first subbing assignment was as a music teacher at Bayard Middle School, where 75 percent of the students are in low-income families and more than two-thirds have been either suspended or expelled. A handful students were ready to play their instruments that day, but others were running around and a few almost got in a fight.

Instead of rolling the dice with the online system, she’s now going steady at Cab Calloway School of the Arts, the public magnet school where she graduated from. There, only nine percent of the students are low-income and only 3 percent have been suspended or expelled.

There’s a drawback, though. Instead of picking her assignments ahead of time, Savage is often waiting for calls early in the morning before she knows whether she’ll work that day. That’s an OK trade-off for her because she’s going to school and working another job, so she couldn’t sub five days a week if she wanted to.

Being a regular sub has helped in the classroom, too, because many of her students have gotten to know her.

“I learned [in college] about getting respect and making connections with students from class, but it’s a little different to carry it out rather than hear it [from a teacher],” Savage said.

Companies looking for solutions

Kelly Services entered the substitute teaching market in 1997 more or less by accident, when an existing customer asked them to expand into schools. Today, the Troy, Michigan, company is the the largest player in the business, working with more than 900 districts to fill about 3 million classrooms a year.

Districts often turn to staffing companies to fill classrooms to avoid the administrative burden required to find and train subs, said Apsey, the company’s vice president.

“The principals, secretaries and the district office can be involved, but we’re pulling that whole transaction out of their hands,” he said. “As the macro economy has improved, finding talent has become much more difficult.”

Kimberly Doherty, executive director of human resources for the Brandywine School District, said her district started hiring companies to find substitute teachers about a decade ago. At the time, the percentage of classrooms for which a substitute could be found was in the high 90s, she said. It’s declined to the lower to-mid 90s, but she says Kelly Services is still doing an excellent job and is “as upset about not filling [classrooms] as we are.”

“As of late, fill rates are going down because fewer people are signing up as substitutes,” she said. The district is working with Kelly to find more would-be substitutes, including through social media advertisements and parent-teacher associations.

The tight labor market has been compounded by a national teacher shortage, as fewer people choosing the profession narrows a key pipeline for substitute teachers while increasing the need for subs.

Kelly is trying to help solve this issue, Apsey said, by partnering with iteach, a company that provides alternative routes to certify full-time teachers. The goal is to help districts find subs who might make candidates for full-time teachers. (Iteach operates in four states, none of them in the mid-Atlantic.)

The often-poor work environment for subs, especially in schools where discipline is a problem, is a more intractable problem for Kelly to solve. Subs are employed by Kelly, not the district, so the company has less control over how schools treat substitutes. Still, it takes the issue seriously, Apsey said.

“That’s something we spend probably 50 percent of our time on, is how do we elevate our sub workforce so they feel proud about what they do, so they feel part of a district as they’re part of Kelly,” he said.

Pay holds recruitment back

Pay “is very much a motivating factor for the substitute workforce,” Apsey said. Because pay is set by districts or legislatures in most states, the company has limited options. Kelly does share pay rate analyses with districts so they can see what competitors pay.

In markets with several school districts, like New Castle County, this could drive up rates as districts compete for subs. But that doesn’t happen here because rates in Delaware are set by the General Assembly. Though the barriers to entry in the substitute teaching market are relatively minor compared with teaching full-time, they are higher than for most comparable work, Apsey said. Applicants need to pay $69 for a background check with the Delaware State Police, which often means waiting to schedule an appointment at the New Castle County office or traveling to Dover for a walk-in appointment.

“You have to really want to become a substitute teacher to go through the process when you could just go over to another company and be on the payroll within the week,” Apsey said.

Savage, the substitute teacher, said the pay isn’t enough to support oneself as a career; most subs are either trying to get into education full time, like her, or are retired.

Substitute teaching is not a topic districts are excited to discuss. Of the four largest school districts in New Castle County, only Brandywine School District agreed to make a district official available to talk
about it.

Rep. Sean Matthews, a Democrat who teaches at the Brandywine School District, last session sponsored a successful bill to allow students studying to be teachers to be paid as if they had a bachelor’s degree. They can earn $83 a day instead of $66 a day, a change that could be made without an additional state appropriation.

“Hopefully, we can boost sub pay, but my bill was an attempt to address the problem without having to incur more costs,” Matthews said.

As a teacher, he sees the consequences of unfilled classrooms: Some classes get combined, or teachers on planning periods get re-assigned. He blames the sub shortage on some of the factors that he says have plagued full-time teachers, especially an emphasis on standardized tests.

One potential solution would be to pay more for subs to work in higher-needs schools like Bayard Middle School, where Savage started. Rep. Matthews says that’s a bad idea.

“I wouldn’t want somebody there who’s there for the money,” he said.

Shelley Meadowcroft, director of public relations and communications for the state’s teachers union, said their members are concerned about the shortage of subs because it’s important to kids to avoid interruptions in learning. But, because substitutes aren’t members, the union doesn’t lobby for or against issues that concern substitutes.

In the meantime, pressure may be building to spend more money on substitute pay. Doherty, the Brandywine human resources leader, said they’re trying to get more creative to find subs but “in order to get the best people you want to pay them well. “Maybe it’s time to revisit that.”

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