Disrupting the Workforce in K12

Written by Debbie Karcher

During my tenure as CIO at Miami Dade County Public Schools (MDCPS), the leadership team and I dealt with many issues related to Information Technology (IT) recruiting and retention. Except for a few years during the Great Recession in 2008, we were unable to attract professionals because of low starting salaries and an inability to promote. Even though school districts and governments offer tremendous benefits, many have lost their luster because the pension systems are going away and it appears the new work force, although attracted by money and benefits, also need challenging and fulfilling positions.

Districts, whose mission is to help students to learn, have not personalized this mission for those outside the classroom and communicated the importance of the teachers in the classroom. College students are no longer attracted to teaching and others are leaving the field because teachers feel undervalued. Consequently, school districts are dealing with personnel shortages for administrators, clerical staff, and teachers.
This article will focus on steps that can be taken to help in recruiting and retaining employees. By creating a modern-day work culture where employees can, when appropriate, work from home, have flexible work hours and job share opportunities, employees will be treated more like their peers in the private sector. It also suggests that the organization embraces the gig-economy where temporary jobs and contracted employees are common place and people are generally self-employed.

The barriers to allowing these types of employment practices come as a result of inherent constraints. The notion of allowing employees to work from home is not embraced by district leadership because of the strict auditing of payroll records. School districts are under constant watch and there are procedures for proving paychecks match to the hours present on the job. This seems to be a contradiction, since districts require that students take virtual classes and expect their employees to resolve issues when there is a technical problem in the middle of night or while on paid leave.

My former district was able to allow employees to work from home by taking advantage of high fuel prices. During this period, Information Technology (IT) was losing personnel at a rate of one per month, sometimes more. To help retain employees and give something back without a cost to the district, leadership and bargaining units agreed to allow employees to telework. Additional checks and balances were put in place that satisfied the auditors, leadership, and employees. Besides increasing morale, we provided additional income to our employees because they had lower commuting costs. It was a win-win for everyone. Unofficial research indicated that employees were always available via instant messaging and as a result, spent more time on the job especially during the afternoon. They were no longer worried about their commute and in fact, self-monitored their peers and themselves because no one wanted this benefit to be revoked. All employees who could work from home were given the opportunity including developers, customer support, and network monitoring and control.

Flexible start and end times have been around for quite a while in the private sector, but again we have been reluctant to embrace it in school districts. Research demonstrates that, when focused, people can complete the same work in five hours that is normally performed in eight hours. It is results, not time spent, that really matter; quality not quantity. Time is often spent in non-work activities for any number of reasons which is why a five-hour day is under discussion. If companies mandated that employees complete their work in five hours, but paid them for 8 hours, imagine the life-style change that would occur when someone could work from say 8:00 to 1:00 pm. The potential benefit could include more time for exercise, family time and could even possibly change traffic patterns.

The question is not when and where people work, but how to measure if people are productive in these new scenarios. The answer is simple. You measure performance in the same manner as you do today, such as hire people you trust, communicate expectations, and measure by deliverables. My experience shows that people for the most part like their jobs and want to succeed, but they also desire a work-life balance. Providing the flexibility to start or end work depending upon on an employee’s life situation is key to achieving that balance. It does not mean that this is done without rules and there can be time periods that people are required to be present. But the idea is that a parent can drop off or pick up their child at school or an employee can work from home while they wait for a service person without having to take the entire day off. This type of work-life freedom is different for each individual; it is not a one size fits all. So, like learning, it must be personalized.

Job sharing, especially in the technical areas, is a great way for districts to have needed expertise on a part-time basis. For example, critical to districts is having a Chief Security Officer (CSO) to help establish and maintain cybersecurity policies and procedures, investigate breaches and keep abreast of the latest cyberattacks. For many small districts a full-time presence is not affordable, but if a person could be shared across multiple districts or local governments then the expertise and networking of your CSO could provide the security needed for you as well as local collaboration. Worldgate can help you start a job-sharing program with their recruiting, job matching, and hiring skills.

Districts could also extend school days and/or the school year to meet instructional requirements. This is another opportunity to offer job sharing or flexible hours among teachers. Some teachers may be able to teach in the afternoon or into the summer and could share the job with another teacher could cover the alternate time.

The above are just a few examples where districts can begin to change their labor force to match and compete with the new economy and to prepare for the retiring population of Baby Boomers. In almost all the examples, no additional budget is needed; only a change in culture and beliefs.