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Columbia Business Monthly

We must recruit teachers the same way we recruit engineers and tech workers

Feb 04, 2019 11:23AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Jason Zacher
SVP of Business Advocacy, Greenville Chamber

After Gov. Henry McMaster’s State of the State address last month, one lawmaker told ETV that she was excited the business community was “finally” on board with education issues. 

We applaud Gov. McMaster’s and House Speaker Jay Lucas’s push to get our teacher pay to at least the Southeastern average this year (and higher in future years). Business groups across our state applaud this commitment to righting our public schools as nearly every business scraps and fights for trained workers.

Make no mistake: The business community is not suddenly discovering education as an issue. Business groups and leaders of our major industries have called for education reform for years as we have struggled to find workers with the skills for the 21st Century economy. As state revenues rebounded following the Great Recession, we repeatedly called for fully funding the Education Finance Act. We’re as pleased as our educators that the issue seems to have reached a critical mass this year.

The essential building blocks of a strong economy begin with a strong workforce. Workforce is the number one concern of nearly every business leader we speak to, every single day. A strong workforce begins with a strong education system. A strong education system must have a strong pool of high-quality teachers.

Higher teacher pay is not about a vanity number, a check box, or a talking point. Teachers rightly point to many other critical workplace conditions that must be improved to make the teaching experience better. The business community isn’t necessarily the best expert on how to improve classroom conditions, but we do understand talent recruitment and retention. 

Raising teacher pay is simple, overdue, and achievable. It gives our state’s teachers concrete proof that we value them while we continue work on other items that will be harder to solve— such as testing, paperwork, student mental health, and professional development. If employees feel valued, they’re more willing to wait while other problems are solved. 

From my base in the Upstate, we are blessed with a strong economy, an expanding tax base, and a booming population. We understand not all our state’s districts are fighting with the same tools we do. Running political campaigns across this state taught me that we have amazing small towns and rural counties. Gov. McMaster rightly noted in his inaugural address that if South Carolina is going to be a team, we need to ensure all our communities are strong. We can recruit business and boost economic growth in our rural communities, but we need a strong, educated workforce produced by strong public schools. 

As the Department of Commerce would say about corporate recruitment, South Carolina’s school districts aren’t just competing against other nearby communities for high-quality teachers, we’re competing with Austin, Raleigh, Columbus, Dallas, Miami, and Nashville. We’re competing across the country and around the world. We must attack this problem and recruit teachers the same way we would recruit engineers or tech workers—whether those are elementary school teachers or high school STEM teachers. 

In a recent survey of communities the Greenville Chamber frequently looks to when we study economic development, community development, or policy, Greenville ranked eighth out of the 10 communities for starting teacher pay. When you look at what teachers are paid after five or 10 years of service, the ranking stayed roughly the same, but the gap was wider. That is manifesting itself in the epidemic of teachers leaving the profession after only a few years of service.

Actually, in South Carolina, we’re not competing. 

The Southeastern average might help us retain teacher graduates from Clemson University, the University of South Carolina, the College of Charleston, and our strong regional universities, but it won’t do much to help us attract teachers from other Southeastern universities. 

Our political leadership understands the issue and wants to take action. What about the next steps? Could McMaster Administration officials take a few minutes and call principals or other education leaders to recruit the best and brightest to troubled schools (as has happened in other states)? Could our state senators and representatives reach out to the top teacher graduates and help our districts land those five-star recruits? 

If we want to change “everything” about our public schools, the General Assembly can’t pass an 84-page package and walk away to the next emergency. We can change everything, and the new passion around education shows we can. That kind of passion is rare in our political life.

While I can’t speak for every business group in South Carolina, I have no doubt the business community will support and offer assistance to our legislators to make this happen.

Our teachers, our economy, and our children deserve immediate action.
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