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The Workforce Challenge in North Carolina’s Public and Private Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic

North Carolina’s elementary and secondary schools have been among the slowest sectors of our state’s economy to return to pre-pandemic employment levels. While many other sectors have struggled to hire and retain workers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a shortage of teachers as well as cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and other non-instructional support staff presents a two-fold workforce challenge: a failure to fill these jobs today impacts our ability to prepare our children for the jobs of the future. In this article, we use data from the North Carolina Common Follow-up System (CFS) to demonstrate that an increase in retirements and a gap in the talent pipeline are driving this shortfall in school workers.

Author: Andrew Berger-Gross

The COVID-19 recession hit North Carolina’s workforce hard, causing hundreds of thousands to lose their jobs. But the recession didn’t last long: our economy started growing again as soon as businesses reopened in summer 2020, and our state fully recovered the number of jobs we lost during the recession a mere one year later. 

But not all sectors of our economy recovered at the same pace. Despite an elevated number of job vacancies, our state’s elementary and secondary schools have been among the slowest to return to pre-pandemic employment levels amid widespread reports of difficulty recruiting and retaining public school teachers as well as cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and other personnel. 

Staffing challenges in the education sector are especially concerning because the sector plays an essential role in cultivating the workforce of tomorrow. While many other sectors have struggled to hire and retain workers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a shortage of teachers as well as non-instructional support staff presents a two-fold workforce challenge: a failure to fill these jobs today impacts our ability to prepare our children for the jobs of the future.

In this article, we use data from the North Carolina Common Follow-up System (CFS) to demonstrate that an increase in retirements and a gap in the talent pipeline are driving this shortfall in school workers.

This article focuses on North Carolina’s elementary and secondary schools, including all full-time and part-time employees of traditional public, public charter, and private kindergarten-through-12th grade schools in our state.1 Around two thirds of workers in this sector are teachers and other instructional staff, with most of the remainder consisting of administrative, food service, janitorial, transportation, and social workers.2 (In this article, we refer to individuals primarily employed in elementary and secondary schools collectively as “school workers”.)3

It is important to emphasize that this analysis covers all employees in all of North Carolina’s elementary and secondary schools. Our findings should not be interpreted as pertaining specifically to public school teachers. Readers who are interested in learning about hiring conditions for public school teachers are encouraged to consult the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) annual State of the Teaching Profession report. Note that our findings are not directly comparable to those in the DPI report due to differences in data sources, methods, scope, and focus. 

Employment in elementary and secondary schools was already trending downward prior to the pandemic, but COVID-19 accelerated this trend, leading to a steep decline in 2020 and continued employment losses the following year [Figure 1]. North Carolina had only 253,400 school workers in 2021, around 9,100 fewer than would be expected based on the pre-pandemic growth trend.

Figure 1

Employment in North Carolina Schools Plummeted During COVID-19

A tight labor market with a surplus of job openings and a shortage of workers has led to hiring difficulties across most sectors of our economy and most regions of our state. In some sectors, such as bars and restaurants, many workers seized on this newfound opportunity to leave their employers and pursue higher-paying work in higher-paying industries. However, this was not the case in North Carolina’s elementary and secondary schools: while the number of school workers leaving for employment in other industries increased slightly during the COVID-19 pandemic, this factor explains only 4% of the overall shortfall in school employment [Figure 2].

Figure 2

Decline in School Workers Was Driven Primarily by Retirements

So, what happened to the rest of North Carolina’s 9,100 “missing” school workers? The largest factor by far was an increase in school workers leaving the workforce—accounting for 52% of the overall employment shortfall. While we don’t know exactly why they exited the workforce, the data we have strongly suggests these were retirees: nearly the entire 4,700-person increase in workforce exiters (4,500) consisted of individuals aged 55 or above. The second most important factor was workers remaining on the sidelines: around 2,700 fewer individuals entered the workforce and 1,300 fewer transferred from other industries than would have been expected based on the pre-pandemic trend.

Competition for entry-level workers from other booming sectors of our economy might explain some of the decrease in individuals entering the workforce to find employment in schools. But when it comes to teachers, in particular, our state faces a deeper challenge in filling its talent pipeline: while the number of bachelor’s degrees in education conferred by North Carolina colleges and universities increased slightly during the past couple of years, it has trended sharply downward over the past decade and remained 34% lower than its 2010 peak as of 2021.  And while hiring difficulties are expected to ease somewhat as our economy slows and the number of unemployed jobseekers increases, demographic trends signal more retirements and job vacancies in the years to come; right now, nearly 26% of school workers in our state are aged 55 or above, compared to 19% of the overall workforce.

Although hiring conditions are beginning to normalize in some sectors, the data presented in this article suggests the workforce challenge in North Carolina schools may last beyond the current economic moment. An older workforce will inevitably result in more retirements, and regardless of what’s happening in the rest of the economy, schools are likely to face persistent hiring difficulties absent a concerted effort to rebuild the talent pipeline and recruit and retain more teachers as well as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and other support staff to aid in the task of educating young people in our state.


1This sector is defined as North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code 6111: Elementary and Secondary Schools.

2Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics (Employment Projections Program) – national-level data https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/industry-occupation-matrix-industry.htm

3This article defines workers’ “primary” sector of employment as the industry sector where they earned the most wages each year. This includes workers who were employed at any time during the year. Throughout this article, employment levels are reported rounded to the nearest hundred.

4The state agency that oversees private schools, the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education, does not public a comparable report on teacher attrition.

5Source: National Center for Education Statistics (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/trendgenerator/

6Source: analysis of data from the NC Common Follow-up System (CFS) https://tools.nccareers.org/CFS/

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