Angie Beyer

Angie Beyer, a third-grade teacher at Forest Hills Elementary School in Sidman, writes a message to students returning from summer vacation. Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat

A once-saturated field is now in heavy demand and creating challenges for many employers of those in education-related careers.

Area school administrators are preparing for the 2018-19 school year – racing to fill positions such as teacher, teacher’s aide, substitute teacher, bus driver and sports coach.

“Right now, the market in education is interesting because it seems like there’s not as many applicants out there as what there once was years ago,” Conemaugh Valley School District Superintendent David Lehman said. “There were times when we would post for a job, and literally, have over 100 applicants. It was like an endless supply of applicants, and now we’re not seeing that.”

Many may believe there are few opportunities to enter the local job market.

Lehman says that’s not the case at all.

He said the underlying issue to the surplus of opportunities in education may be due to the salaries or wages being offered to fill those positions.

“Some individuals might want to go into another field where they can make more money,” he said. “And education has been getting a little bit of a tough rap there for the last couple of years.

“I don’t know if that is scaring people out, but there seems to be some negative press surrounding the teaching field the last couple of years, when it wasn’t that way before.”

According to the latest numbers in the government’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover report, American employers are searching to fill about

6.6 million open positions, and the prospects for a finding new jobs are the best they’ve been in nearly 10 years.

“I can tell you right now that I have roughly 70 teacher (positions), and I’m looking to fill 10 percent of my staff,” Lehman said. “There just aren’t as many people to look at as there once was.”  

‘A teacher shortage’

Learning Lamp Human Resources Director Kayla Cobaugh said she, too, is finding it more difficult to locate qualified candidates for job openings. 

“We’re definitely starting to see a teacher shortage in this area,” Cobaugh said. “I think some other areas have felt it sooner than we have, and it’s just kind of starting here, but we’re definitely noticing less and less qualified applicants, especially in specific areas like special education.”

The Learning Lamp, based on Bedford Street in Johnstown, works with more than 20 Pennsylvania school districts to find qualified educators and specialty staff.

“For a long time around here, people struggled to get into positions like this, and I think people who were interested in education may have steered clear of going into it because they were afraid that they wouldn’t get a job,” Cobaugh said. “So I think there are just less people coming out of college with a degree in education.”

Cobaugh also acknowledged the area’s ongoing battle with “brain drain” – noting that many who receive college educations are moving away.

“So that’s also hurting us,” she said.

The current list of available education-related jobs varies from actual classroom teachers and aides to school nurses and band directors.

“These positions are extremely important. They’re what shapes the youth of America,” Cobaugh said. “We struggle to recruit even our top-percentage early learning positions.

“That profession is an extremely important profession – they’re teaching our children who are going to be working in 10-20 years. And we’re struggling to find qualified people to gauge their minds and engage them in the learning process.” 

Outside the classroom

The need to fill positions related to the education fields extends beyond the classroom. 

Several local transportation companies are seeking applicants for positions such as school van drivers, van monitor/aides and school bus drivers.

These positions are typically a good fit for stay-at-home parents or retirees, said Mlaker Trailways vice president Matt Mlaker.

“The bus driver is the first step of the education system,” Mlaker said. “Bus drivers have a huge effect on the kids they drive. They’re spending a half hour or 45 minutes with the kids each morning and afternoon.

“Unfortunately some parents are already off to work or whatever the situation may be, and that bus driver might be the first adult that kid gets to see in the morning. That bus driver can really become a friend and an ally. 

“They play a very vital role.”

Mlaker said his company has a tough time finding qualified candidates, even with providing on-the-job training.

“It’s a challenge all the time,” he said. 

“One of the biggest challenges is that it is a process to get people to become a school bus driver.”

Mlaker explained that in order to drive a school bus or van for his company, candidates must fulfill certain requirements such as obtaining a commercial driver’s licenses, passing pre-employment drug tests, physicals and background checks and completing in-class and behind-the-wheel training. 

“We have to have safe drivers and you can’t cut any corners when it comes to safety,” he said.

A scan of the Sunday help-wanted advertisements in The Tribune-Democrat reflects that schools and other education-related organizations are in a hiring mode this summer.

“We’re seeing a lot less applicants for these positions,” Lehman said, “but the opportunities are there.” 

Ronald Fisher is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @FisherSince_82.

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