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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan schools can’t fill teacher aide jobs: ‘There are no applicants.’

Stephanie Siems
Stephanie Siems, director of special education at Lamphere Schools in Madison Heights, said rising pay at entry-level jobs is creating a shortage of teaching assistants. (Courtesy photo)

Stephanie Siems can’t hide the desperation in her voice.

It’s the first week of August, and the Lamphere Schools district in Madison Heights still has a dozen openings for paraprofessionals to work with special education students. That’s 20 percent of the 60 special ed teaching assistants needed by the first day of school, Aug. 30. In normal years, there might be one opening this close to school reopening.

To try to attract employees, the district raised starting pay, from the $13.68 an hour it offered last school year, to $18.70 an hour, with health, dental and vision insurance, paid sick leave and retirement benefits for positions that only require a high school diploma.

“We’re praying it works,” Siems, the director of special education for Lamphere Schools, told Bridge Michigan “There are no applicants. It’s terrible.”

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Across Michigan, school districts are struggling to fill the low-pay but high-value jobs known as paraprofessionals, who serve as classroom assistants to certified teachers. The shortage is particularly dire in special education classrooms and centers.

The teacher aide shortage isn’t as well known as the state’s teacher shortage, but the consequences could be similarly devastating to students who count on extra classroom adults for support.

The shortage, which has worsened dramatically this year, is likely a ripple effect of the pandemic, which has had the effect of raising wages in normally entry-level jobs. Some fast food restaurants are paying $15 an hour to new employees and offering signing bonuses. That is also in the pay range school districts have until recently offered paraprofessionals.

Essentially, school districts are now competing with McDonald’s and Subway for workers who in the past would have taken teacher aide posts, said Tamaran Dillard, director of special education at Hazel Park Schools in Oakland County. And flipping burgers is arguably easier work.

“The people who do take these positions, they love the kids,” Dillard said. “But others do not want to deal with the challenges a school might present … (and prefer) less stress.”

Teacher aides are used primarily in elementary grades and in special education classrooms. In general classrooms, they help students who are struggling with lessons, a job that’s expected to take on a more vital role in the coming school year as students return to classrooms after a year of lurching between online and in-person learning.

Paraprofessionals also play a critical role in special education classes and centers, where the student needs are often much greater. There were 193,000 students with disabilities in Michigan public schools in the 2020-21 school year, 13 percent of all students.

While there are paraprofessional certificate programs offered at some community colleges, no certification, training or background is required. The only requirement to be a teacher aide is a high school diploma. Schools offer training for those who are hired.

There is no statewide data on job paraprofessional job openings in Michigan schools, but calls to districts around the state confirmed a growing problem. A survey conducted last week by Oakland Intermediate School District, which provides services to the districts in Oakland County, found that 1 in 6 paraprofessional jobs needed this fall remain open — 145 total openings in 15 districts that responded to the survey.

The shortage is so severe that Oakland ISD published an “urgent” news release last week pleading for people to apply.

“Parapros help support the overall education of students by assisting them with equal access to curriculum while also helping students to become contributing members of society,” said Karen Olex, executive director of Oakland Schools’ Special Populations, in the statement.

 “We are in desperate need of them here in Oakland County and are encouraging those who believe they are qualified to apply.” 

In Comstock Public Schools, a rural district in Kalamazoo County, the shortage is worse than ever. Comstock Superintendent Jeff Thoenes said the district has boosted pay from $15 an hour to more than $17. 

“We decided to make them the highest-paid parapros in the county,” Thoenes said.

Still, Thoenes said he isn’t sure he’ll be able to fill his teacher aide positions. He attributed the lack of interest to lingering fear over COVID safety in schools. Children under the age of 12 are not eligible yet for the vaccine, and many districts are planning to make masks optional.

“When people think there’s a danger, people think, do I want to risk it for $17 an hour?” Thoenes said.

Lamphere Schools’ Siems encouraged those looking for jobs to consider becoming a paraprofessional. Many people use the jobs as a stepping stone to a career in education or the medical field, Siems said, and many who take the posts end up staying for years because they enjoy the work.

Siems said she currently has 16 applications for paraprofessional positions, but “we call and they either already have jobs or they won’t return our phone calls,” Siems said. “Some are interested but they are already parapros in other districts that pay less. There’s just not enough people out there.”

There is no statewide initiative to try to address the parapro shortage, but there is a virtual job fair Wednesday and Thursday for those interested in hearing more about a variety of positions in Michigan schools. 

Many school districts also post job openings on their websites. More information about the fair is available at http://bit.ly/MIEDUCATION_JOBFAIRS.

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