The state again expects to hire about half as many teachers to fill vacancies for the coming school year as it usually does, as teachers hold off on retirement or abandon plans to switch jobs because of the uncertain economic picture.
The Department of Education typically hires about 1,500 new teachers a year, most of whom are picked up in the summer.
But last year, DOE hired only about 800 new teachers. Even fewer hires are expected this year.
Existing teachers are "not leaving their jobs, not retiring," said Kerry Tom, DOE recruitment and employment administrator. Others "are staying because there is less opportunity for other employment."
The trend is being seen nationally, too, and is a dramatic shift from predictions of a few years ago, when educators warned of big teacher shortages as baby boomers neared retirement and college graduates migrated to higher-paying fields.
Officials stress there are still shortages of special education and secondary math teachers, and say hiring will likely pick up as the economy continues to improve.
Still, in the short-term, the jobs forecast isn’t good for new education school graduates.
About 71 percent of just-hired DOE teachers annually are new college graduates and have had no previous experience. About 75 percent have a bachelor’s degree, according to the DOE.
About a quarter are from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, whose education college churned out 149 graduates in spring 2010 eligible for teaching licensure.
Melvin Spencer, UH College of Education student academic services office director, said new graduates remain optimistic despite the hiring dropoff.
"They are still being patient," he said. His students are encouraged to be flexible in their applications, including being willing to work in rural or underserved areas. "We tell our teachers not to be so particular," Spencer said.
Valentina Abordonado, director of the Hawaii Pacific University’s school of education, said fieldwork by students while they’re still in school is a key to grabbing jobs early.
HPU licenses about 20 new teachers annually.
Abordonado added that though the hiring picture appears bleak now, it probably won’t stay that way for long.
"No one has a crystal ball in this economy," Abordonado said. "But I think this is a very temporary situation."
Tom, of the DOE recruitment office, said about 12 percent of the state’s 11,300 public school teachers are eligible for retirement. He added that if retirements or departures suddenly go up over the coming month, the DOE would be able to "ramp up recruitment efforts" and fill positions.
But for now, principals say, there doesn’t appear to be much prospect of the number of retirements growing considerably.
At Farrington High School, two teachers retired this summer, compared to four or five in a typical year.
Principal Catherine Payne said several teachers whom she thought would retire decided not to, apparently because of uncertainties with the economy.
John Wataoka, principal of Waianae Elementary School, which has 600 students, said he has several teachers who are eligible to retire.
But they’re staying on. Wataoka said it’s because they enjoy what they’re doing.
"They remain on as teachers simply because they love it," he said, adding that not having to bring in new teachers has brought stability to the school. "At this point, we are fully staffed and we’re ready for the school year," he said.
The decline in teacher departures comes as the DOE is trying to beef up its teacher retention and mentoring programs. One such program overseen by the UH College of Education and geared toward special education teachers shows promise.
About 88 percent of the program’s 2004 graduates are still teaching special education, said Amelia Jenkins, chairwoman of the special education department in the UH College of Education. Nationally, 50 percent of teachers who aren’t mentored abandon the profession after five years.
Whitney Yamamoto, 23, graduated from UH-Manoa in spring 2009 and is determined to stick with the profession. Next month she’ll start her second year at Wilson Elementary School, where she says she has found a campus with experienced teachers and administrators willing to help her get over a few rough spots.
"My school is really supportive," said Yamamoto, who is also pursuing a master’s degree.
And she said that although the job market for teachers might be worrisome now, she has no doubt things will improve.