Soon, those baby boomers might start retiring at a rate faster than local colleges produce education graduates and quicker than school districts can recruit replacements, according to a Wyoming Department of Workforce Services report.
That could cause school districts’ recruitment costs to rise substantially, said Tom Gallagher, manager of research and planning for the department.
It might also make it harder — especially for rural districts — to find new teachers to replace those who leave.
In 2012, 14 percent of teachers across the state were eligible for retirement, according to the report. About 3 percent of the teaching workforce over the age of 55, or 259 teachers, actually left the industry.
That proportion will continue to grow as more baby boomers ages 50-68 retire, Gallagher said. He estimates a wave of teacher retirees will hit Wyoming schools in three to five years.
Just how dramatic that wave will be, however, is unclear.
“We know the shape of the animal,” Gallagher said. “We just don’t know how fast it can run.”
With increased retirements, school districts would face more recruiting costs. That could cause critical decisions about where a district would cut costs to pay for finding and training new teachers.
“Let’s say we have to hire headhunters,” Gallagher said. “Where are we going to get the money? What are we going to cut?”
The Legislature can pour all the money it wants into school districts, but if districts can’t recruit the teachers they need, their ability to educate is limited, Gallagher told the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/1luzdZo).
Besides increased costs for recruitment, schools may face tougher competition for qualified teachers.
Although there was a significant increase in the number of education-related graduates at the University of Wyoming between 2011 and 2012, the number of people earning education degrees in Wyoming is small compared with other states, the report says. In 2012, UW awarded 289 education degrees.
Gallagher doesn’t know how many students with education-related degrees from UW teach in the state after graduation. That’s part of the department’s next report to the Legislature, due in the fall.
But he does know that most industries face more difficulty recruiting workers to rural areas than metropolitan areas, where economies tend to be more diversified.
People also tend to marry spouses with similar education levels, Gallagher said.
That makes teachers, whose profession is among the 25 percent of jobs in Wyoming requiring formal education beyond high school, more difficult than some other professions to recruit to rural places, where there may not be many available jobs requiring a higher education.
Wyoming is poised to compete for out-of-state teachers due to its higher-than-average teacher salaries, according to the report. An average teacher in Wyoming made $59,314 in 2012, while an average teacher in Colorado made $50,841. Nationally, teachers on average made $57,580.
That average is not consistent throughout the state, however, which could create competition among school districts for new teachers as older teachers begin to retire, the report said.
For Gallagher, that raises an important question.
“Is there a state interest in mitigating that competition?” he said.
Bonnie Bitner, a 66-year-old speech pathologist, laughed Thursday while playing a word game with her two students at Paradise Valley Elementary.
She flipped a card, which second-grader Johnathan Davis read aloud.
“My dad,” Davis said.
“That’s your subject,” Bitner said. “What’s your predicate going to be?”
“My dad works at Pathfinder,” Johnathan said.
“Let me hear you say ‘work,'” Bitner said. “Pull back that ‘r.'”
“Wooork,” Johnathan said.
Bitner is one of five retiring special education professionals in Natrona County this year. Special education teachers are the oldest group of teachers in Wyoming; about 35 percent of the special education workforce here is 55 or older.
“They are dropping off pretty quickly,” Bitner said.
The district’s special education director, Tammie Bertelson, 55, will also retire this year. Bertelson has led the district’s special education department for 18 years.
At least four special education professionals have retired in each of the past two years in Natrona County, Bertelson said. But she said she was surprised to hear the statewide figures on aging special educators.
“It really surprises me,” Bertelson said. “We’ve hired a lot of people in the last couple years, and many of those people are quite young.”
It is harder to hire special education professionals in Wyoming than to hire educators in other fields of education, Bertelson said. An elementary opening in her department recently received about four applicants, while a similar general education opening at an elementary school can often see up to 75 applicants, she said.
A district can buy more time to handle the predicted wave of retirees by minimizing teacher turnover now, Gallagher said.
Figuring out which parts of a teacher’s compensation package best encourage educators to keep teaching could slow the increase in retirements. Some districts pay educators bigger raises earlier in their careers, then allow raises to taper off the longer they stay, Gallagher said. Other districts try to reinforce retention by granting bigger raises during a teacher’s middle or later years.
“There’s no two districts that are exactly the same,” Gallagher said. Determining whether one of those salary strategies works better than others could be a good place to start, he said.
A district could also build a recruiting or marketing plan with the Professional Teaching Standards Board, which can contact certified teachers currently working out of state, Gallagher said.
Creating a training plan to transfer institutional knowledge from retiring teachers to incoming teachers would also lessen the damaging effect of increasing retirements on a district, he said.
The Department of Workforce Services doesn’t have a good way to predict when people will retire, Gallagher said. There are too many factors. A person’s decision to retire often depends heavily on the housing market, their children and their spouse’s work situation.
“The research that we do is just one step,” Gallagher said. “It’s not the answer. It’s trying to get the question raised in a factual way.”
As Wyoming enters its next scheduled funding adjustment, or recalibration, in 2015, it will have a chance to tweak its school funding model to reflect changing costs. That could be an opportunity to increase funding to recruitment in anticipation of future retiring trends, Gallagher said.
It would mean planning for something that hasn’t happened yet.
“How do we accommodate changes in the cost structure when we haven’t encountered them?” Gallagher said. “That’s new.”