Going to the Head of the Class

Workers from battered industries turn to teaching

After getting laid off in March from his job as a marketing executive at Blue Martini Software Inc. (BLUE ), a faltering Silicon Valley startup, Patrick D. Bernhardt seized the chance to switch into a field he always had wanted to try: teaching. Within a month, he landed a job teaching computer science at John Muir Middle School in San Jose, Calif. Bernhardt is pleased with the move, despite a 50% drop in salary and a summer training stint. He must also go to evening classes three times a week for the next two years to qualify for a teaching license. "This is the hardest thing I've ever done, but the sense of satisfaction is great," he says.

The 24-year-old Stanford University graduate is one of thousands around the country who are turning to teaching as the recession tosses more people into the job market. The trend is especially pronounced in such high-tech hot spots as Silicon Valley, where the slump started earlier and typically affects more college-educated workers, who can qualify to be teachers. "We've benefited from the downturn," says Toni Patterson, assistant superintendent of staffing at Wake County school district in North Carolina's Research Triangle. "Even spouses who had left teaching are coming back after their significant others have been laid off." A rush of applicants has slashed the county's vacant teaching posts to 38, down from 100 last year.

A BOON. Indeed, the economic woes of Corporate America are proving, at least temporarily, to be a boon for education, which has been plagued by teacher shortages for years. Nationwide, the teaching labor force expanded by 2.8% in the 12 months ending in October, even as the recession drove down the national labor force by 0.7%, says Ron Bird, chief economist at the Employment Policy Foundation in Washington. That jump is helping schools enjoy an expanded pool of qualified workers after years of struggling to compete with higher-paying jobs in technology and other sectors.

The newfound interest in teaching may not be enough to end the chronic shortfall of educators, however. The U.S. still must hire more than 2 million new teachers in the coming decade to replace aging baby boomers and to handle an upsurge in immigrant children, according to a 1999 study by the Education Dept. The projections were made before the new applicant boom, but it's unlikely there will be a steady stream of new teachers over such a long time period, experts say.

In fact, education experts fear worse: "Once the economy turns around, all these people are going to bail," frets Carlos Ponce, chief human-resources officer for the Chicago public school system. Experience suggests he may be right: Studies show that turnover can reach up to 60% among those who make a mid-career switch to teaching. If too many new applicants bolt for the first corporate job that comes along, the resulting turmoil could leave schools worse off, worries David Haselkorn, president of Recruiting New Teachers, a nonprofit outfit in Belmont, Mass.

PEANUTS. To hang on to the newcomers, schools need to boost pay. Although most teachers receive good benefits and don't work during the summer, starting teachers earn only about $28,000 a year and must wait years to reach the average salary of $42,000. What's more, teacher salaries have risen by just 2.9% a year since 1990, barely more than the rise in consumer living costs. Big pay hikes aren't likely, though, given the recession-induced squeeze on state and local budgets, which pay for the bulk of education expenses. "Because the pay is so low, I've done everything from construction work to custodial work during the summer," says Michael Kerr, a second-grade teacher who earns only $32,000 a year in pricey New York City.

Credentials present a formidable hurdle for many career-switchers, too. Most states allow those who didn't get their BA in education to teach on a temporary basis, but usually they must be certified within a year or two. Bernhardt, for instance, took several one-day classes last summer, then taught a summer-school course under the guidance of a regular teacher. The evening classes he is taking at a nearby college cover pedagogy and other subjects he needs to be a qualified teacher. New teachers usually have to pay for the extra learning out of their own pockets--$3,000 in Bernhardt's case.

For the moment, though, schools are also the beneficiaries of a sort of September 11 effect. As people grope for ways to do something meaningful, some turn to teaching. Bank Street College of Education in New York saw a record turnout at a recent open house for people looking to make a mid-career change. "I'm getting numerous e-mails from people saying they need to rethink their lives and are wondering about teaching," says Jon Snyder, dean of Bank Street's Graduate School of Education.

Some school districts are becoming adept at helping recruits make the transition from other professions. San Jose, for example, has a program that provides coaching and mentors to working adults with BAs who want to become teachers. If they pass a test, the district works with a nearby college to arrange the courses applicants need to get certified. "Becoming a teacher in California isn't easy; there are millions of forms to fill," says Jennifer Long Bauer, a 26-year-old former dot-commer in San Jose who's teaching seventh and eighth grade now. San Jose's Teaching Fellows program "guides you along."

Most economists think the jobless rate will continue to rise next year even if the recession is relatively mild. This creates an opportunity for schools to reach out to people whose first instinct is to go to higher-paying fields. The trick for educators and school districts will be making teaching so rewarding that the newcomers stick around when more lucrative jobs beckon once again.

By Pallavi Gogoi in Chicago

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