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How aspiring teachers navigate a tight labour market

Middle school teacher Lynn Heath, is photographed during class at the EAST Alternative School on June 6 2017. Heath, who will be retiring at the end of the month says the market is tough for new teachers as universities are graduating more than there are open positions.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Aspiring teacher Susan He knows how difficult it is for new graduates to find secure jobs in her chosen profession these days. But, having dissected frogs with Grade 10 students and supervised competitors at an international math fest, Ms. He cannot imagine anything more fulfilling than a career as an educator.

Ms. He discovered her passion for teaching as a science undergrad working as a teaching assistant in the biology lab at McMaster University.

"I had students who were engineers, students who were in the humanities, taking the lab course as an elective. It was actually quite fun being able to teach anyone who came through the door, being able to explain the subject in such a way that they'd say, 'Okay, I understand it'," said Ms. He, who now wants to inspire a love for science in middle school and high school.

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Given the stiff competition for permanent teaching positions across the country, particularly in Ontario, 23-year-old Ms. He is not sure where she will end up when she graduates with her Master of Teaching degree from the University of Toronto next spring. Meantime, she volunteers in after-school clubs, participates in an engineering program for children and is investigating research opportunities.

"That's part of the uncertainty for any teacher right now. I'd be lying if I said that I am just going to focus on getting my foot in the door and teaching, and that's it for me. Definitely, if there is a space for me, I will take it and have that experience," she said.

As retiring teacher Lynn Heath prepares to pass the torch to the emerging generation, she advises prospective teachers to "take anything they can get" to gain experience. She recommends they volunteer, supply teach and apply for long-term contracts covering for teachers on leave until a permanent job opens up. Be prepared to move to a region where the job prospects are better, she said in an interview at Toronto's EAST alternative school, where she has been lead teacher of Grade 7 and 8 students for the past 20 years.

In the saturated Toronto market, it can take five years or more for teacher candidates to accumulate enough experience and seniority to crack public school board's "eligible to hire" list for permanent positions, said Ms. Heath.

While the job market is tight across Canada, provincial education ministries say demand is greatest for teachers who specialize in science, mathematics and special education, and teachers who can instruct in French. Prospects are also better for teachers willing to work in remote locations.

Ontario is still working through a backlog, having "produced an estimated 26,000 more qualified teachers than there were available teaching jobs in the province" between 2006 and 2011, according to a report prepared last year for the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. "OCT [Ontario College of Teachers] survey data show that in 2015, 35 per cent of 2010 graduates were still searching to secure permanent teaching positions five years after graduation," the report said.

In 2013, the Ontario Ministry of Education extended the length of the teacher education program from one year to two years, effectively halving the number of new entrants to the field each year. The changes went into effect in 2015. A decline in the number of new teachers entering the job market and a gradual rise in retirements over the remainder of this decade should help improve employment outcomes, the Ontario College of Teachers said in a 2016 report.

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The Alberta government projects that an overall surplus of teachers will continue there through to 2025. The Quebec government forecasts muted demand for educators through to 2019. In British Columbia, "as the size of the 5-to-12 age group is expected to continue to decline over the decade, future job creation in this profession will not be great," according to B.C. government projections. "New teachers often have to work [part-time] two or three years before they are considered for a permanent position."

Still, said Ms. Heath, persistence pays off. "There is really no better job if you love kids, if you love learning, if you are excited by curriculum and the dynamics of working with students."

Ms. He agrees. "People know when they sign up [for teaching programs] . . . that there might be a wait time, that they might need to do more learning before they get a full time job."

On the plus side, people entering education programs now are seriously committed. "This is what they really want to do."

Interestingly, with enrolments in education programs down across the country after years of oversupply, some policy experts worry that the pendulum might swing too far in the other direction.

"With enrolment restricted on the one hand and rising retirements . . . on the other – in the absence of any policy interventions – the teaching workforce may face another shortage in less than two decades," the HEQCO report said.

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"Applications for the new two-year teacher education program are already falling below the number of funded program spaces. Convincing young people to consider a teaching career may pose the next challenge for Ontario's education system."

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