Is the 'Great Resignation' a genuine threat for Australia’s education sector?

Is a mass walk out imminent?
A shift or a reset?

If you believe in the hype surrounding the so-called ‘Big Quit’ then you probably think we are all headed towards a talent apocalypse. The truth is we’re not.

Apparently, the ‘Great Resignation’ is upon us – a workplace event involving thousands of Australian’s quitting - or considering quitting - their jobs to work elsewhere.

What we are in fact witnessing is the ‘Great Retention’ - a mounting challenge or opportunity to create a work environment where people have meaning and purpose, feel valued, supported, and cared for.

As the pandemic lockdowns retreat but borders remain impermeable, Australia is witnessing two employment emergencies. One, a shortage of labour in the hard-hit sectors, such as hospitality, health, agriculture, food processing, and education. Second, a scarcity of skilled labour in the professional classes leading to a massive rise in wages, poaching of staff and promotions.

We're an island nation and, therefore, in all skilled occupations, including education, there is scarcity. So, rather than seeing the Great Resignation, what we are really seeing is some volatility, where wage increases and promotions are being used to retain high-skill production managers and professionals working in sectors like financial and business services, technology and healthcare.

Before considering what this means for employers and employees in education, it’s worth noting where most of the Great Resignation hubris has come from.

In the United States, which is mostly dominated by casual labour and a more ruthless management culture, the Great Resignation is topical because resignations have significantly increased.

When the pandemic hit the US, casual workers were the first to go, especially in the leisure and hospitality, retail trade, and education and health services sectors.

Management’s speed of action, and the lack of business, government and health support, impacted these employees dramatically. Those left behind had to work harder, without resources, support, and thanks.

With no security nets in place, US workers have been treated appallingly.  In many cases, they have been treated abominably, their workloads increased, and their health ignored.

By the way, the Great Resignation is a very middle-class concept because it's a white group of people who in the middle class have been successful.  They’re basically saying: "I don't want to put up with this *#%* anymore.  I can afford to rethink my work and life goals and find what I’m looking for elsewhere”.

This isn't about people who work on a factory floor. They're not resigning. It's a middle-class professional group who are resigning.

In Australia, we have a very strong social security net.  And, despite their sometimes lone-wolf behaviours, we have governments who have thrown money at both business and people to try and fix things.

We are fortunate to live in a country where we have permanent employment, where we have an industrial legislation that secures that employment, and a system which respects people who live and work in a diverse society.

We've seen incredible generosity of spirit throughout the stand downs. Australian employers have been overwhelmingly good.  Australian governments have been generous. And the way people have behaved has been remarkable. Employees are for the most part thanking Australian employers for being loyal, committed, and kind.

So, how do we turn the Great Resignation into the Great Retention?

First, employees must feel supported.  Teachers want to work in flexible, caring, and trusting work cultures and environments.  An educator will consider leaving their job if respect isn’t  reciprocated, or if they feel tethered to their workplace.

Second, education institutions will need to invest more in creating and building educators’ capability and capacity, as well as the infrastructure which supports them.  Investments should be targeted at evolving educator roles into different functions. Upskilling people will create a certain cadence in the workplace which leads to an increased sense of self-worth and belonging.  Retaining someone in the same role with the same skills is simply a waste of time.

Third, teachers need to feel connected to the school or organisation they work for.  Retention is not about, "How do we keep people for as long as possible against their will?"  Rather, retention is about creating an environment where people want to be - where they care about what they do and what the organisation stands for. People need to feel they are personally and professionally growing because of what they do. They need to feel engaged and productive.

This is what we should be talking about; not the Great Resignation, but how to build cultures and relationships which meet the challenge of the Great Retention.
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