How to slow the teacher attrition rate in the UAE

Even during this period of global downturn, turnover in the UAE education sector in particular has remained very high.

The issue of teacher retention reflects the growing challenge of employee turnover across UAE service industries. Ongoing concerns over the very high rates of turnover in the education sector, and recent focus on staff retention in the health sector, highlight the growing importance of this issue.

Measuring employee movement can be used as an indication of the relative health of a company or an industry. However, using attrition rates or employee turnover as an indicator of overall organisational health is a tricky business. Many factors affect an employee’s decision to leave. A low turnover might not be indicative of happy and productive workers. It might mean they have no alternative. In a difficult economic climate, employees will tolerate a great deal for the security of a regular income. A benefit of the global crisis to the UAE has been the opportunity to attract highly qualified education and health workers from depressed regions.

However, even during this period of global downturn, turnover in the UAE education sector in particular has remained very high.

And now, as economic conditions improve globally, the UAE faces greater competition for the same human resources. Added to this is the problem of an increasing cost of living in the UAE and stagnant salaries in education and health sectors.

Certainly high turnover rates in some industries are normal and expected. The construction industry worldwide has always had high employee turnover, as do the hospitality, tourism and retail industries. Losing good employees is a disappointment to any organisation and manager, and in some situations it is unavoidable.

In contrast, avoidable turnover stems from an employee’s decision to leave due to factors that are within the organisation’s control, such as working conditions, salaries and benefits. In vocational and professional contexts such as education and health, alarm bells should be ringing where employee turnover starts to climb above 15-20 per cent.

Unfortunately official statistics on turnover in the education sector are unavailable, though they would be very useful in helping to identify the extent of the problem. A recent report on private education in Dubai by the World Bank also makes reference to high levels of turnover, without specific figures being provided. Reports in the media have identified rates of anywhere between 20 per cent and upwards of 60 per cent in some cases.

The issue of salaries is an easy target for explaining why employees leave.

Managers often jump to the quick conclusion that an employee leaves because of a better salary offered elsewhere. This can be a way to rationalise an employee’s departure and categorise them as being financially driven or greedy. I can’t imagine very many teachers who join the profession for its financial rewards, given the comparatively low wages in the education sector globally.

Rather than focusing on teachers’ wages, is it unreasonable to suggest that the large profits that many education providers are trying to achieve should be the target for discussion? In its latest fiscal year, Dubai-based Gems Education reported a 77 per cent increase in profit to US$75 million. Of course every private business is profit driven, but focusing on teacher pay raises that are doing little more than keeping pace with inflation, while profits for some private education providers rise so dramatically is misleading.

Research has consistently shown that compensation is an important factor in any turnover decision. However, in an educational context other key contributors are a lack of professional development opportunities and poor school administration. Teachers are highly qualified professionals with associations, certifications and memberships that demand continuous professional development. As such teachers who are denied professional development run the risk of undermining their ability to gain employment in another region.

Identifying the solutions to addressing teacher shortages is simple:

• Offer salaries that are globally competitive and commensurate with qualifications and experience.

• Provide teachers with real professional development opportunities that will be recognised by the educational environment of their home countries.

• Administer schools to create a supportive environment that allows well qualified professionals the opportunities to exercise their skills and expertise without excessive interference.

Identifying solutions is easy, implementing solutions is more challenging.

James Ryan is an associate professor of human resource management and organisational behaviour at UAE University.

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