As schools in China’s western provinces reopen and the travel ban takes effect, recruiting English teachers from outside the country is going to be significantly more difficult for an industry that already suffers from a severe shortage of qualified staff. It’s an issue that is likely to impact the ESL industry across Asia.
According to the International TEFL Academy, around 100,000 ESL jobs open up every year – a large proportion of which are in Asia – with only half of all teachers renewing their annual contracts. In China and South Korea, around 1,000 new teachers are hired every month.
“There’s hundreds and thousands of small schools that rely on native language foreign teachers,” explains Jean-Pierre Guittard, owner of edtech company iTeach.world.
“You can reopen your school, but where are the teachers going to be?”
“Often these are young people with a technical certificate [TEFL, CELTA, etc.]. Those people are suddenly without employment so they’ve all gone home. And so the concern is, what happens afterwards? You can reopen your school, but where are the teachers going to be?”
Guittard tells The PIE News that his company’s virtual classroom platform has seen a “substantial” increase in interest from ESL schools in Asia.
While some have switched online and been able to keep their teachers employed, institutes are now looking ahead to when those contracts end. Travel bans, lockdowns and unwillingness to travel are going to diminish the number of teaching job candidates.
“They’re gonna have to work harder to recruit new teachers,” he says. “It’s a huge process involving work permits, filtering applicants and training. It’s not simply putting an ad out like here in San Francisco, where I can find a qualified teacher, interview them and if they’re good, they can start in a few days or the next day.”
“It will take months to revamp and to rebuild their staff. Those schools always had an ongoing pipeline of people coming in. That pipeline is empty now.”
How schools react to coronavirus is also going to impact their reputation. Teachers working for some schools – including top brands – have reported being fired and unpaid as a result of the outbreak.
Several reviews from one major chain’s employees claim that the company “took half of every staff member’s February payment with only one week’s notice”.
“You can’t have a four-year-old kid sitting in front of a screen for two hours”
An article from the Japan Times noted that some employers there had also refused to pay foreign teachers (in violation of local law) and that the coronavirus has exposed gaps in Japan Exchange and Teaching contracts that don’t offer staff any protection in the case of serious illness or natural disasters closing their workplace.
In Vietnam, the business model of schools is largely determining their outlook. Those catering to test preparation and older students are finding adopting edtech easier and are able to keep their staff on.
At the English language chain YOLA, where Nam Nguyen is general director, the transition to online learning has been relatively painless. Although some teachers have left, the majority have stayed on.
“We’ve got about 350 teachers in our centres and about 30 teachers have left the country. The majority have returned to their home countries rather than looking for work somewhere else,” Nguyen tells The PIE.
“Others have also resigned from YOLA and taken work with Chinese companies online like VIP Kid but they are still based here. So some of them are waiting out the crisis and then people will be offline again.”
But Nguyen adds that schools who are more reliant on foreign teachers – YOLA has a roughly 50:50 split between foreign and local ones – and those that cater to younger students are seeing their business suffer most severely.
“You can’t have a four-year-old kid sitting in front of a screen for two hours. Classroom management is a whole new sort of dynamic for that type of teacher,” he said.
Although schools are due to open in Vietnam in April – it is likely to be pushed back, however – some parents have also decided they will be keeping younger children at home for the rest of the semester. In this case, it may give some schools a breather.
“So there may be a demand for teacher recruitment in more specialist subjects,” Nguyen says.
“But I can’t imagine kindergarten teachers or general English teachers for younger students being in high demand because of consumer behaviour.”