This is the first in a three part series about employment in Gays Mils.
GAYS MILLS - We talked to the three largest employers in Gays Mills recently and were surprised at what we learned—in some cases very surprised.
The discussion of recruiting challenges focused on a past-present-future look at each specific employer. From there, the discussion looked at the challenges and solutions these employers have experienced.
The employers included North Crawford Schools, a local school district, BAPI, the area’s largest light manufacturer, and Sunrise Orchard, the largest local apple orchard. While each employer faces challenges unique to their situation, it was interesting to see how these very different businesses also share similar challenges and use similar approaches in finding solutions. The story got a little lengthy, so we decided to present it in three parts over the coming weeks.
Our first stop was the North Crawford School District, where we met with district administrator Brandon Munson and business manager Demetri Andrews.
Both men are experienced educators, who have seen the changes affecting employment in the schools.
Munson noted immediately that the biggest change recently has been in the reduced benefit package being offered to teachers.
“In education we always had the advantage of having a better benefit package,” Munson said of the district’s ability to compete for employees. “Ten years ago, our employees never saw a medical bill.”
Munson noted that when the state legislature passed Act 10 and Governor Scott Walker signed it into law there was a direct effect on employment in education. While the law effectively eliminated union representation for teachers and most other public employees, it also mandated teachers pay some health insurance and pension costs.
Another change is the school year itself. At North Crawford, it means summer activities for 100 to 125 students though July. Some staff is now employed for a large part of the summer.
“The days of walking out of the building on June 1 and returning August 30 are few and far between,” Munson noted.
The changes in the job expectations and the amount of other jobs available in the economy are having a direct impact on hiring at North Crawford and other school districts.
Munson, a North Crawford alumni, returned in 2007 as the school’s elementary principal after working in the Wausau School District for years.
The district administrator remembered that in 2007 when the district hired a sixth grade teacher there were 64 or 65 applicants for the position. By contrast, when the district hired a sixth grade teacher this year, there were only 18 applicants. In a 10-year timespan, the number of applicants for the same teaching position in the same school district had declined by over 70 percent.
However, Munson noted that the difficulty in hiring teachers in certain fields predates Act 10 and the current economy.
So getting 18 applicants with some very qualified people remains a good thing. However, the number of truly top-level applicants is getting smaller, according to the district administrator.
“The issue is that there are not very many of those (top-level) individuals available,” Munson said.
This has caused a massive change in the district’s approach to hiring. In the past, a position was posted and applicants had a certain amount of time to apply. After the deadline passed, the applications were reviewed and selected applicants were called in for interviews.
“We have changed how we screen and interview applicants,” Munson said.
“The school board has given us permission to do what we have to do (to hire the most qualified people),” Andrews explained. The days of 64 applicants containing a large number of top-level people are over.
“They (the most qualified) go fast,” Munson explained. “It’s highly competitive now in all areas. It used to be math, science, tech ed, business education and special ed were competitive. Now, it’s also elementary teachers, that’s probably the best example.”
“It seems like when people interview here now, they’re interviewing us, as much as we’re interviewing them,” Andrews pointed out. “They’re more in the driver’s seat, especially in the hard-to-fill positions.”
Munson described the district’s recent experience with one of the hard-to-fill positions-a tech ed instructor. North Crawford had only five applicants for the position. A number of the applicants had equivalent experience in the private sector. Only one had a tech ed degree and license to teach tech ed. Ten years ago, there also were not many applicants, but almost all had tech ed teaching certificates, according to the administrator.
In this example, the district did not wait weeks to set up interviews; they acted immediately to get the applicants in the door.
“With a position like that you don’t have a choice,” Munson said.
The district like many others now is active in recruiting applicants. The administrators call contacts and ask if they know of somebody looking for a position. In fact, a new reality is that districts are “poaching” staff from other districts.
“We have not done this,” Munson said. “However, another superintendent in a nearby district was not shy in telling us that they do it. It’s not a practice that we are comfortable with doing. We don’t want to do it.”
What North Crawford is doing now is posting open positions earlier than they used to post them. If they know they have to fill a position for next year, they’ll post in March, rather than waiting for the school year to end.
And, the district is selling itself in the interviews now, according to Munson.
The primary posting the district relies on to find applicants is called ‘WeCan.’ It’s an acronym for Wisconsin Education Career Access Network.
North Crawford has also created an alternative teacher compensation committee to look atways of modifying the traditional salary schedule. In the past, teacher pay was based almost entirely on seniority and education levels. Other ideas to evaluate compensation are considering employees’ professional development, leadership and growth, the administrators explained.
For instance, the district believes that teachers putting in extra hours before and after school need to be compensated for that effort.
North Crawford is also embracing a concept known as ‘Grow Your Own.’
The district works with high school students in their junior and sophomore years with an interest in an educational career. The students are given a chance to experience the career through a program similar to the youth apprenticeship program for Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs).
For example, the high school students may get experience working with Kindergarteners.
‘Grow Your Own’ in some schools includes contracting with seniors to help support them in college financially and with teacher training opportunities in return for their commitment to teach in the school for a certain number of years.
The district has already participated in federally funded student loan forgiveness programs based on teachers working in high poverty districts, like North Crawford. The program requires a teacher to remain in the district for five years.
Paying for students’ college tuition in certain hard-to-fill positions like special ed may be the wave of the future for some school districts, according to Munson.
A major source of teachers and support staff for the rural school district already is their alumni. Of the 80 professional staff, Munson estimates over half are North Crawford alumni. Among the other half, many are alumni of nearby school districts. If they’re not directly from the area, most of the staff attended rural schools. Only a handful have backgrounds in large metro areas.
“We get excited when alumni apply,” Munson said. “We know we’re getting someone who understands. Someone who understands the community. Someone who understands our need to educate the whole child. That doesn’t necessarily happen in places like Waunakee and Sun Prairie. Things are very different there.
Interestingly enough, both Andrews and Munson chose to return to rural schools after growing up attending them.
“We both chose to raise our kids in a small community,” Andrews pointed out. “We both lived in bigger towns, but chose to be in a small community.”
However, both administrators readily acknowledged younger college-educated people may be more excited to live in Madison or LaCrosse, especially if they’re single. However, they believe if the applicants can see and understand the district they’ll make the choice to work here.
“Getting them here, getting them in the door, that’s the first challenge,” Munson said.
The administrators believe that the alternative compensation salary schedule is a good way to offer motivated teachers comparable salaries to what they might make elsewhere. They also believe that when applicants consider that the district provides a good place for people to work, it looks much more attractive.
Both administrators explained that teachers have a better environment and more opportunities at North Crawford than they might in larger districts.
“People feel valued when they come to work,” Munson said.
“You’re not just a number in 500 numbers,” Andrews added.
North Crawford also offers attractive positions to the support staff that is overwhelmingly made up of North Crawford alumni. A recent paraprofessional position in special education drew 15 applicants.
Andrews noted the district has pretty good compensation for the support staff paying on average more per hour than nearby districts They believe this allows the district to attract and retain the most qualified people.
“Some districts have all part-time support staff to avoid paying for benefits,” Andrews explained. “We don’t. It’s not a path we want to go down.”
The district believes their compensation of support staff leads to less turnover and more continuity with the students. Despite the challenges of hiring qualified teachers and staff, Munson and Andrews believe just getting the applicants in the door is the biggest challenge. So far, they seem to be getting it right, but both agree there are more changes on the horizons for employment in the field of education.