Teacher shortage

OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

Education is the cornerstone of the knowledge-based society. But will quality teachers be available to provide it, or is the profession cracking under the strain of low salaries, an ageing workforce and demand for ever more complex teaching abilities? 

The teaching workforce is ageing. A considerable number of countries already have an old teaching force, with 49% of teachers in upper secondary education in Sweden aged 50 and over. Moreover, recent signs point to a worsening of the situation in several other countries, such as Germany and New Zealand.

Already the teaching profession must compete for a shrinking pool of young talent, at a time when the attractiveness of school-level teaching as a career is declining. Teachers are typically being asked to do more work for less reward. Salaries are falling compared with other professions while our knowledge-based societies are placing new demands on teachers’ abilities, such as mastering information and communications technology (ICT) as part of their core teaching requirements. Faced with these problems, ensuring that there will be enough skilled teachers to educate all children becomes an issue of major importance to policymakers.

Ageing of the teaching workforce has several effects. First, it raises costs without resolving the problem of low entry salaries as, with incremental salary scales, a higher average age for teachers leads to a greater overall wage bill. Second, the need to adapt current teachers to meet the new challenges is likely to require more resources. Finally, and most importantly, the future teacher supply is likely to be affected as proportionately more teachers retire in any given year.

The worst-case scenario of severe teacher shortages in the near future is laid out in “Teacher Exodus – The Meltdown scenario” in the OECD’s Education Policy Analysis 2001. It posits widespread public dissatisfaction with the state of education in the face of a deep teacher-recruitment crisis and a growing sense of declining standards, especially in the worst affected areas. But the immediate effect of a shortage is more likely to be a lower quality of teachers and teaching than a dramatic tale of classrooms full of uninstructed pupils. In the short term, the main mechanism used to balance supply and demand is to relax qualification requirements. Alternatively, demand can be reduced and brought into line with available supply by increasing teachers’ workloads or class sizes. In either case, quality suffers.

Ageing is not the only problem. Many of those who do decide to join the teaching profession leave for other jobs long before reaching retirement age. There are strong suggestions (Ingersoll, 2001, see references) that while retirement is still not a prominent factor behind teacher turnover, keeping teachers in the profession is a grave problem.

Governments need to act now to make the profession more attractive. Specific policies affecting financial incentives, working conditions and professional development are needed if serious shortages are to be avoided. It would be unfortunate if the demand for quality in today’s school systems and indeed the pressing demands of knowledge-based economies were to be subverted by teacher shortages.

Gender is also an issue here. Women still dominate the profession in primary and lower secondary schools, with 88% of the primary teaching force in New Zealand being female. In no country is the proportion of women decreasing, and if anything the overall trend is upward. The pattern is reversed in upper secondary schools in many countries, with women in Korea, for example accounting for only 27% of the teaching force. But the overall gender imbalance in the profession translates into what many educators consider an inadequate presence of male role models. This is compounded by the fact that recruitment practices are limited in their scope, perpetuating the predominant presence of women. Improving the status of the profession would attract more men back into education. In fact, this would have the added benefit of encouraging a flow of talent – men and women – from other professions into teaching, reversing the outflow we see now.


• Denton, F.T., Feaver C.H., and Spencer, B.G., “Teachers and the birth rate: The Demographic dynamics of a population”, Journal of Population Economics, 1994.

• Ingersoll, R.M., “A Different Approach to Solving the Teacher Shortage Problem”, Teaching Quality Policy Briefs, University of Washington, 2001.

• OECD, Education Policy Analysis, 2001.

©OECD Observer No 225, March 2001

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