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Higher Education Professionals Mull Teacher Shortage

Salt Lake City—As many industries continue to grow and thrive in Utah, challenges associated with that growth begin to emerge. In the tech industry, a talent shortage looms over its explosive expansion in the state. From that to construction to manufacturing, many professionals have mentioned the need for more qualified employees to enter their workforce to continue to fuel the flames of growth.

Members of the higher education community are often looked to as the gatekeepers for these potential workers, but they in turn have issues of their own to contend with. Attendees at Utah Business‘ annual education roundtable discussed issues from communication and funding challenges to the alarming and growing teacher shortage.

Even while trying to accommodate workforce demands, higher education institutions have to be balanced in their approach, said Chuck Wight, president of Weber State University.

“I visited with [Hill Air Force Base] and they said ‘We need to hire 250 computer scientists and electrical engineers and computer engineers every single year for the foreseeable future. I think we’ve been modestly successful in increasing the diameter of that pipeline. Right now we have 1,240 computer science majors, but only 15 faculty members. That’s an 80:1 ratio. The demand stretches our institutions in important ways,” said Wight. “CEOs of software companies come to me and say ‘Well, why don’t you hire a bunch of faculty?’ and I say, we do this for the long term. We make a 30 year commitment to a faculty member. …Higher education has to smooth out the dips and increases in that demand. But the disconnect is that our funding primarily comes from two sources, from the state legislature and from tuition. Not from the businesses who are crying for the demand for the graduates. Somehow we have to make a tighter connection between workforce development and that demand and the funding that we’re able to use to expand our programs to meet that demand.”

Furthermore, students are entering higher education less and less prepared in the fields of mathematics and language arts. In K-12, a shortage of qualified teaching professionals has continued to alarm not only the education community, but every industry hoping to hire qualified and talented individuals in the future.

“How do we incentivize [teaching K-12] for the students so that they want to go into that area, so that they come out and fill needs in that area?” asked Lisa Gentile, provost at Westminster College. “I keep thinking about what some rural areas do for physicians. If you commit to being a physician in a rural area for a certain number of years, they pay your tuition. How do we set up incentives and programs and pipelines like that for areas that we really have a lot of need in?”

Incentivizing students to enter the teaching profession is not an easy task. Deneece Huftalin, president at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) related that SLCC has an incentive program aimed at luring students of color to enter the teaching profession.

“We give them free tuition for two years. We cover everything. We give them free tuition and the foundations of the districts pay for all their books,” says Huftalin. “…But I have to say after 10 years, we’ve seen not a huge influx in that pipeline. We’ve been working hard at that. But I go to that graduation every year, and we’re maybe seeing eight students coming out of that pipeline. It’s discouraging in some ways. Why it’s discouraging is because even though we give them all these incentives through their academic experience, other external environments—whether that’s the legislature or the school board, whatever—de-incentivize that profession. They don’t stay. I think it has to be much more of a statewide commitment to the professionalization and credibility of teachers.”

“No teacher that I know of ever went into the profession for money. They always do it for the love and for the respect,” added Wight. “But we have a national conversation right now which is getting nastier and nastier. The respect for the profession has taken a big blow. I think that’s why all of us are seeing the numbers of students who are going into our teacher preparation programs declining. Love is no longer enough. It’s really unfortunate.”

The education roundtable was moderated by Rich Kendell at Education First 2020. Read the full conversation in the October issue of Utah Business.