For now, Robert Kratzig is working retail.
He’s a special-order sales coordinator at a home improvement store. But his not-so-secret ambition is to do the work he trained for: teaching.
“I had good teachers in school,” said Kratzig. “They made a big impact on me.”
He would love a chance to impact young lives and put to use the skills he gained while earning a master’s degree in teaching at Western Washington University.
His ambition brought him to a recent education job fair at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall, along with an estimated 864 others from around the state. The fair, in its 27th year in Tacoma, was sponsored by the Washington School Personnel Association. A second fair is set for April 17 in Spokane.
The turnout this year was up significantly from recent years, said association director Chris Burton. Not only were there more new teachers seeking that elusive first job, there also were 105 school districts from Washington, Alaska, California and elsewhere hoping to hire them. That was up about 20 percent over last year, organizers said.
This year’s job fair on March 22 represented a better balance between employers and job candidates than in the past few years, Burton said.
“When the recession hit, people were afraid to retire,” said Burton, who taught for 18 years before switching to a career as an attorney. “They needed the benefits, or they weren’t sure about their spouse’s 401(k) plan.”
This year, he said, he’s hearing that school districts are reporting more retirements and fewer pink slips, so there will be jobs to fill.
The state Employment Security Department also predicts increasing demand for education-related jobs, including teachers.
At least 10 Pierce County education employers, representing both public and private school systems, were at the fair.
Debra Barlow, executive director of human resources in the Sumner School District, said she’s seeing a “decent amount of attrition” for the first time in three years in her district. Two springs ago, layoff warnings were issued to 15 teachers due to tight budgets; this year, the hiring picture is brighter in Sumner.
“We’re excited,” Barlow said. “This is the first clump of hiring we’ve done in about four years.”
Barlow was at the fair with three district interview teams, which conducted initial interviews on the spot. Many districts – including hers – were searching for candidates for hard-to-fill teaching positions in special education and health-related professionals such as speech-language pathologists.
But Sumner also had jobs posted in elementary education, secondary social studies/language arts and an opening for a band director at Bonney Lake High School.
Jennifer Traufler, executive director of student services for Tacoma Public Schools, said that two years ago at the job fair few school districts were hiring. This year, she went to the event searching for special education teachers, along with school psychologists and physical therapists.
She said the tight job market of recent years pushed some educators to seek jobs in special education even though that wasn’t their passion. When she asked applicants why they were seeking a position in that discipline, some would answer, “Because that’s where the jobs are.”
That’s not the answer she’s looking for; she wants teachers who are dedicated to special-needs students.
Michael Soltman, superintendent of the Vashon Island School District, said he has a mature teaching staff that is beginning to retire. This year, he said, four people will retire from a staff of about 60. In coming years, he said, there likely will be more.
His 1,500-student district is searching for teachers in the humanities, science and special education fields. The district also is starting a Spanish-immersion program for kindergartners.
Those openings could be good news for educators seeking that elusive first permanent job.
Some have taken the first step by working as substitute teachers. But even with that kind of real-world experience, young teachers said, it’s an uphill battle.
“It’s still really hard with all the budget cuts,” said Kristin Rhode of Kirkland, who is in her second year substituting after graduating from Western.
She said most postings she sees are generic “pool” jobs – an elementary teaching spot without a specific school attached to it, for example.
She’s now substituting in Bellevue and Lake Washington school districts but said she’s willing to go almost anywhere for a permanent job.
Laurie Jo Dumas, a career and technical education staff member from Tacoma Public Schools, had advice for new teachers: Substituting can be a way to get your foot in the door, especially in a large district such as Tacoma.
“Keep looking,” she urged candidates. “Don’t give up.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635