Downturn to blame for so much talent going to waste.

Pupils returning to school at the start of each year are customarily greeted by a significant number of new, relatively youthful faces among the teaching staff. Last week, that was not so much the case. The global recession has prompted many teachers to conclude this is not the time to be retiring, changing careers or travelling overseas. The unfortunate consequence is that a large number of teachers newly graduated from training institutions cannot find jobs. Understandably enough, this has been the cue for much hand-wringing over how this wasteful situation could have been allowed to develop.

The angst is reinforced by the fact that the supply of teachers always seems to be a matter of feast or famine. It was, after all, only four years ago that a teacher-bonding scheme was deemed necessary to stop them being lured overseas when they completed their training. Go back another six years and the then Government was bringing in many overseas teachers and pondering whether it should pay young secondary school teachers a $1500 loyalty bonus to stay in this country's classrooms for more than two years. Now, the oversupply is such that an Education Ministry-contracted speaker last year encouraged one group of primary teaching students to leave New Zealand when they graduated because only one in five would land jobs here.

Clearly, this represents a waste of both taxpayer funding and talent that should be being used in this country. Newly trained teachers without a job have a right to feel aggrieved, especially if they believe they were not fully informed about the employment environment that would greet them when they graduated. Their plight will not go unnoticed by many of the bright students who might be considering a career in teaching. The fact that one vacancy at a central Auckland secondary school drew more than 70 applications, mostly from graduates, tells its own story. So, too, do estimates that more than 1000 newly trained teachers will not get a permanent job, if at all, until several years after they have graduated.

In such circumstances, the spotlight will inevitably fall on the training institutions that have continued to churn out teachers. Undoubtedly, they can be faulted for an excessive number of graduates in some subjects, notably physical education, and a shortage in physics, chemistry, Maori and mathematics. In this area, there should be a greater attempt to ensure supply more accurately reflects demand.


But it is possible to attach too much blame to the training institutions for the wider problem. No one envisaged that the global economic downturn would endure so long. The common assumption was that the worst would be over in a couple of years. Given that, the trainers were entitled to think that the numbers leaving the profession would return to normal within a relatively short time. If this had occurred, matters would now be on a far more even keel.

As it is, the current oversupply will be a relatively short-term phenomenon. It may be of little solace to those graduates who cannot find a job now, but primary school enrolments are forecast to increase steadily until 2019. In that year, secondary school numbers will also start growing. This growth combined with the high number of teachers nearing retirement and a brighter economy providing the catalyst for overseas travel or a career in a different field may even provide the potential for a teacher shortage.

That is, of course, unless something else unforeseen emerges to again confound matters. Predicting demand is not something that can be done with complete precision.