The last 14 months have been a doozy for maintaining our hallmark of high quality teachers. With all that we offer here at Sunrise Montessori (18 paid holidays, free child care, friendly culture, catered team meetings, insurance, sponsored TGIF events, etc.), it’s even more unusual to suffer the kind of hiring problems we’ve experienced. For years, I proudly bragged on our low turnover in an industry known for the opposite. And some of you Sunrise parents may not have even noticed a change because your child’s teacher is happily still a Sunrise Team Member, but others have seen our struggle. So what happened? Why has it been so tough? In this blog post, I explain what’s been going on and steps I’ve taken to keep us on top.
When times are uncertain, we humans tend to keep things as normal as possible in our lives and switching jobs is not high on anyone’s list, but Covid changed that dynamic. First, the lay offs happened. We had about 270 students enrolled over two locations at the beginning of March 2020 and only about 70 the following month. I was able to hire back almost all of those I had laid off thanks to PPP, but some of our team didn’t want to return because they were scared of getting Covid and opted to stay on unemployment benefits. Others wanted to come back, but didn’t want to be around so many people, so they changed careers altogether. I heard about teachers from other child care centers who set up care in their own home or became nannies due to families wanting their child in an environment with only a few children.
As time went by and our enrollment numbers slowly increased, finding new teachers was getting harder and harder. We added a new wing of 7 classrooms to our East location, opening finally in February 2021. Due to demand of families moving to the area, we opened all 7 within four weeks of it finishing. That meant hiring about a dozen more team members, and as if all that wasn’t enough, more child care centers were opening up in our city, placing even more demand on an already tight labor market.
We were interviewing 5 times the number of candidates per position, but not hiring them. We refused to hire someone if they weren’t up to our high standards, so to combat this, I increased our ad spend (I spent over $2,000 in one month to Indeed.com, it got so bad). I also upped wages. And increased them again. And then again. Finally, we started to see some traction. To keep our fantastic Team Members, I also increased their pay to ensure they were higher than our new hires.
Sound familiar? These problems are common in many areas of the country right now but especially in Austin. Perhaps you’ve noticed a few coworkers in your own workplace coming and going? 😉 (I say this sarcastically…the average person doesn’t stay in a job for very long because we have more jobs available than people to fill them). With so many big companies moving more and more of their people here (Apple, Tesla, Amazon, Samsung…the list goes on), there was/is high demand for housing and child care, yet the supply of teachers for all of the reasons I mentioned above has not yet recovered.
All of these issues created a perfect storm. I was reeling from shutting down my first location in December due to low numbers there (it was located near Dell headquarters, which went remote, you can read about what happened in my blog post here). Money was already tight. Raising wages so high to keep Sunrise’s culture intact was necessary, but difficult. As I send out our new Enrollment Agreements later this month, I hate that I have to raise tuition more than I usually do. Having said that, it’s still not as much as I should. I’m counting on our numbers increasing this fall to make up the difference.
This past year, Ms. Michelle, our Director, and I joked often that she felt like she earned a degree in Human Resources while I earned one in Business (the constant pivoting, trying new things, whatever it took to get past the next hurdle). As we exit Covid, I wonder what things will look like after we take stock. What will we no longer have to do? What will remain? What I know now is that the teachers who stayed with us through Covid are AMAZING, resilient, positive thinking dynamos and I’m thrilled to share that all of our open positions have been filled! 🙂 Our school feels like it’s recovering, the tours of prospective families remain robust. Our team feels strong. So many things to be thankful for. 🙂