In (reluctant) support of teachers

I’m no great fan of school teachers (at least as found in contemporary New Zealand –  a re-read last week of Goodbye Mr Chips was another matter altogether).  Over ten years now we’ve encountered a handful of very good teachers, quite a few duds, and lots who seemed no better than mediocre.  There was the Principal who, when my oldest child started school, told a gathering of parents of new entrants that it was really quite inappropriate to teach content as almost all of it would be out of date before long.   And when this particular Principal (together with the NZEI) was using the pages of the Dominion-Post to promote my daughter’s teacher –  apparently genuinely excellent –  as an illustration of the case for more pay, I made myself unpopular by noting that in the same school there were less than outstanding teachers, and that most people knew who they were.   Then there was the science teacher at the local intermediate school teaching conspiracy theories around 9/11.      Teachers who want to tell students off for discussing the previous day’s playground incident in which a deeply troubled student was on the loose with a knife and the school was in lockdown.   And then there is the endless “indoctrination”, mostly probably by teachers not quite smart enough to realise there really is an alternative view to their particular right-on views on colonialism, capitalism, homosexuality or whatever, and not apparently trained to the view (common in my youth) that a teacher’s personal political views (let alone sexual preferences) weren’t something to obtrude into the classroom.   If there are any teachers in Wellington sympathetic to a market economy, they must keep rather quiet about it.

So I’m not normally overly sympathetic to teachers.  And mostly we are stuck with them –  the teachers’ unions being among those most strongly opposed to effective school choice.   That said, as a stay-at-home parent, their stopwork meetings and strikes don’t inconvenience, or greatly bother, me.  It can be nice to have a bonus day at home together.

Of course, like any occupation there can at times be difficulty filling particular teaching positions.  When I was young we moved from Christchurch to Kawerau, and either on the day we arrived, or possibly the next day, the Principal of the local high school was on the door step.  He’d heard that the new Baptist minister’s wife had science qualifications and teaching experience (10 years previously) and he was desperate for staff.

Perhaps not all such specific vacancy stories tell anything meaningful about salaries and/or working conditions.  But when the stories multiply, and there is evidence of a material gap between demand and supply (demand exceeding supply) at the current price is usually a sign that the price should be rising, perhaps quite a bit.

How confident can we be that there is a shortage of teachers at current salaries?  Principals tell us so, but they –  members of same unions –  aren’t entirely disinterested observers (it was only a few weeks ago that a newsletter came home from one local school in which the Principal urged us parents to get along and support the teacher protest).    And almost every day, at least in the schools I have exposure to (three at present), there is a warm body in front of each class.

But then in this morning’s newspaper we read that the government itself –  the ultimate employer/funder of most school teachers –  recognises the problem.  The Minister of Education “is pledging to find at least 400 overseas teachers for the 2019 academic year”.

Which is rather convenient for the government surely?  As the near-monopsonist purchaser of school teaching services, it deals with shortages by using its power as  controller of the immigration and work visa regime to attempt to meet its staffing problems.

As I’ve written previously, there can be a place for work visas where, for example, there is a sudden and unexpected increase in a demand for a particular skill, or even where a particular skill is very rare (the market for some speciality skills can be very thin indeed).   But there are no real surprises as to how many teachers are needed nationwide –  at bare minimum for people born here there is a five year lead time, and that for new entrant teachers.  And decent teaching skills aren’t, or shouldn’t be, that hard to come by –  the PPTA apparently claims 17000 members.    These should be jobs that can be perfectly adequately filled by local residents –  who will have the added bonus of understanding the local culture –  at least if the labour market was allowed to work.

A few months ago I wrote here (and here) about how the work visa system appeared to be enabling local authorities to keep down bus driver wages and (thus) fares and ratepayer funding by substituting foreign workers in place of locals.    The bus driver case looked particularly egregious –  it being a quite modestly-skilled role into which someone could be trained in 6-8 weeks.   But it isn’t clear to me that the school teacher case is really so different, even granting that the skill levels are higher, and thus the inevitable local training and recruitment lags would be a bit longer.

Of course, like all work visa applications the case for importing teachers will be supported by evidence that locals couldn’t be recruited. But if you keep the wage level down it isn’t overly surprising that New Zealanders with other options will pursue them, and you will be left with an apparent shortage.

And the market in teachers is a pretty dysfunctional one.  We have national pay scales even though it must be a great deal harder to get teachers in Auckland than in Timaru (and that private sector jobs typically pay a bit more, for the same job, in Auckland than in Timaru), the pay scales for secondary teachers don’t differentiate by subject (even though the alternative options for a good science teacher and a good history teacher may be quite different, and we still have something like pay parity between kindergarten teachers and secondary school teachers.   For that we can blame both the teacher unions and successive governments (National-led and Labour-led).

Nonetheless,  there does seem to be a shortage of (good) teachers, and it isn’t obvious that the government should be able to use the immigration system to avoid meeting the market (while no doubt claiming in other fora that heavy use of work visas in particular sectors doesn’t hold down wages in those sectors).

When writing about bus drivers, I suggested adopting this sort of policy

To that end, I’ve argued previously for a system in which Essential Skills visas are granted on these terms:

a. Capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa, with this provision to apply regardless of skill level).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum.

If an employer really can’t find a local hire for a modestly-skilled (or unskilled) position, they’d be able to get someone from overseas, but only by paying (to the Crown) a minimum annual fee of $20000.  It is pretty powerful incentive then to train someone local, or increase the salary on offer to attract someone local who can already do the job. If you can’t get a local to do a job for $40000 per annum, there might well be plenty of people to do it for $50000 (and still cheaper than paying the ongoing annual fee for a work visa employee).

Even in the context of teacher salaries –  where starting salaries are well above $40000 –  per annum – this looks like the starting basis for a workable model.

More generally, I have argued that

If we are going to have government officials administering something like a mass market Essential Skills visa scheme, and deciding who does and doesn’t get approval, surely a key aspect of any labour market test should be something along these lines?

“has the effective wage or salary rate for this occupation risen materially faster than wages and salaries more generally in New Zealand over the past couple of years?”

If not, how can you seriously use the term “skill shortage”?    Even if wages in a particular occupation have risen faster than the norm, it takes time for locals to respond and shift occupations, so one wouldn’t necessarily want to jump at the first sign of a bit of real wage inflation in a particular occupation, but if after a couple of years the pressures were persistent then some sort of Approval in Principle for temporary migrant labour –  at wages at or above those now prevailing in the domestic market – might make some sense as a shock absorber.  But MBIE seems perennially averse to markets adjusting in ways the generate higher real wages, even though that outcome is one core part of what we look for from a successful economy.

I’m not a fan of the teachers’ union propaganda arguing that some decades ago senior teachers earned as much as MPs, and that they should be again –  MPs seem to have been quite badly underpaid in that earlier period.  But I’d be surprised if the government could show that teacher salaries (and overall working condition-adjusted remuneration) have increased more rapidly than the market generally in recent years.  If not, surely higher salaries –  perhaps regionally differentiated – should be the first part of any adjustment, and if there is any resort permitted to offshore labour markets it should be explicitly temporary, backed by financial incentives/penalties of the sort I outlined above.

It sticks in the craw to stick up for teachers and their unions, but the market indications would appear to be on their side in this particular dispute.   Of course, the fact that there is a shortage doesn’t –  in an administered market like this –  tell one how much salaries should be adjusted (or the onerous paperwork burden eased), or the appropriate balance (starting salaries vs later progresssion) but the direction looks pretty clear.  And the proposal to resort to substantial offshore recruitment looks as if the government has indirectly conceded the case –  even as, again, it continues to preference the interests of offshore people over those of New Zealand workers.  Teachers might be less sympathetic than bus drivers, rest home workers, or shop assistants, but they are New Zealanders too.  Even, as it happens, substantial funders of the Labour Party.