Shortage of school workers in Minnesota hampering some operations
A tight labor market has left school districts across the metro area struggling to fill job vacancies that have threatened day-to-day operations.
District officials have reported vacancies for several hard-to-fill positions, such as after-school child-care workers, special-ed instructors, bus drivers and nutritionists.
In Minneapolis, a severe shortage of cafeteria workers has forced some after-school programs to cancel hot dinner service, offering students only cold meals. And because of an acute bus driver shortage, district officials are scrapping after-school activities in at least five Minneapolis schools.
Across the river, the St. Paul School District has reported it doesn’t have enough school support staff members to go around.
Meanwhile, Centennial School District officials are scrambling to fill vacancies for special-ed teachers and assistants, as well as for child-care workers. And in the South Washington County Public Schools, bus drivers, special-ed assistants and child-care program workers are in short supply.
School workforce shortages aren’t anything new, but parents and school leaders agree this is the worst one they have seen in many years. Despite multimillion dollar cuts to address widespread budget shortfalls, school districts say there’s money left to hire people, but the difficulty lies in finding candidates who are willing to take these jobs.
Steve Hine, labor market analyst at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), said the tight labor market and the growing number of retiring baby boomers have led to a smaller pool of school employee candidates — a problem facing school districts nationwide. According to data released in September by the department, the state’s job vacancies surged to a record of more than 142,000. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Minnesota fell to 2.9 percent in August, the lowest level since 1999.
In order to compete for workers, Hine said, districts must redesign their recruiting and retention strategies.
“Job seekers can afford to be a lot pickier and as a consequence, these kinds of positions that may offer only part-time hours and a relatively low pay rate and no benefits are ... challenging to find people to fill those positions,” Hine said. “It’s a matter of making the jobs more attractive or targeting the populations that may find part-time work appealing.”
To address the shortage, school districts are ramping up their recruiting efforts. They are holding job fairs that promise to hire on the spot, posting ads on social media, displaying fliers and signs in public places and enlisting parents and older students to fill in the gaps.
Minneapolis has about 60 vacancies in special education alone. The state’s third-largest school district has been grappling with finding enough special-ed instructional help, cafeteria workers and bus drivers. Currently, the district is short 26 bus drivers and about 50 cafeteria workers.
At Centennial and districts across the state, other teachers are forced to pick up caseloads to fill in the gaps created by so many special-ed teaching vacancies. And to temporarily address six assistant vacancies, Centennial district officials are frequently tapping into their substitute pool, a practice many say hurts students.
Dan Melde, Centennial’s director of human resources, said the district’s before- and after-school child-care program is most starved for workers, accounting for 10 to 15 vacancies. About 115 kids, he said, are currently on the program’s waiting list.
“I’m getting people saying ‘you know what, you’re not offering enough money,’ ” Melde said. “Before we’ve had strong contracts and we’ve never had that issue, but right now I’m hearing way more than I ever have.”
South Washington County Public Schools’ “Kids Club,” a before- and after-school child-care program for school-age kids, has turned away more than 400 students since the start of the new school year because of 19 assistant vacancies. The 18,500-student district increased bus drivers’ wages by 8 percent, up from $18.30, and is offering free health insurance to drivers working more than 25 hours a week. Meanwhile, district officials are scrambling to fill 25 openings for aides.
“They’re all equally distressful,” Dan Pyan, the district’s director of finance and operations, said of the different kinds of unfilled school jobs.
Economists say boosting pay for these hard-to-fill positions is one way to end the shortage. But the Minnesota School Employees Association, the union that represents nearly 7,000 public school employees, ranging from support staff to nutritionists, custodians and bus drivers in more than 60 school districts around the state, said cash-strapped districts cannot afford to pay competitive wages that can match the rising costs of living. Instead, schools have reduced employee hours and increased job duties to save money.
“We talk to every district about [vacancies], but it’s a question of dollars and cents and they don’t have it,” said Mark Junod, the union’s field representative. “As you cut back on hours of service, as you increase caseload, to me, I would fear whether children are getting the services that they should be getting.”
Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203