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How to Get Lots of Apples

If you're looking for a rewarding career where others look up to you, you get entire summers off and there are more open jobs than candidates to fill them, look no further than teaching

By Randy Franz

Get out your No. 2 pencils . . . School A goes two years without enough qualified math and science teachers. Engineer B spends nine months looking for an engineering job. How long does it take Engineer B to opt for a new career at School A?

Answer: This is only the second paragraph. Read the rest of the story. Form a hypothesis. Figure probabilities and calculate logical consequences.

Here’s a hint to get you started: It took Susan Francomano of New City, N.Y., 12 years to make that decision. Francomano earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering, a master’s in computer science and worked in well-paid industry jobs for more than a decade. “I never thought I would be teaching in a million years,” she admits.

Today, Francomano, 43, teaches high school math, loves it, feels challenged, believes she is fairly compensated and is the object of numerous job offers each year. “Especially when they see you’re an engineer, not just a math teacher,” she says. “Plus, I have a science background. They see all kinds of areas where they can plug me in to help if I want to. It opens up a lot of possibilities.”

Why There Is a Need

For decades, U.S. education officials have watched student scores plummet in math and science. The reason, they’ve discovered, can be traced to a lack of qualified math, science and technical teachers, primarily in grades 7-12. Fewer than half of all teachers in the United States who teach math have a major or minor in math, and 28% of math teachers lack state certification, according to Recruiting New Teachers, a national nonprofit organization that advocates a better-qualified teaching work force in public schools.

And the need is growing. According to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, public schools will need to add about 2.4 million new teachers between the years 1998-99 to 2008-09. Math, physical sciences, special education, computer science and anything related to foreign languages or bilingualism are the areas of greatest need, according to the American Association for Employment in Education.

To improve the situation, school and government officials hope to pull technical talent (e.g., engineers) away from industry jobs and place them into classrooms.

Should Engineers Become Teachers?

“I don’t sell engineers on teaching—they should be engineers.” says Susan Staffin Metz, president of Women in Engineering Programs & Advocates Network (WEPAN). “But if they don’t get a job or if they don’t like their job, they can go get another degree or teach.”

“It is a viable career option [for engineers],” Francomano says. “It’s been perfect for me.”

Of course, what is perfect for one person might be risky for another. New graduates from engineering schools usually are primed to apply their skills to hands-on engineering projects, not impart their knowledge back to other students. Teaching also requires good oral communication skills, a skill that is often not a high priority for engineers. And not every engineer or engineering-school graduate will accept the lower pay that is a fact of life in teaching.

“It’s what fits for each individual,” Metz says.

Do the Dollars Make Sense?

On salary alone, teaching jobs fall far short of engineering jobs. In its Winter 2002 Salary Survey, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that the average annual salary offer to bachelor’s degree graduates for project engineering jobs was $46,568. For chemical process engineering jobs, it was $52,193.

For teaching jobs, the average salary offer was $30,082. The average salary for all U.S. public elementary school and high school teachers in 1999-2000 was $41,724, according to the National Education Association. It varied greatly by region, from $52,174 in New Jersey to $29,072 in South Dakota.

Top Jobs for the Class of 2001-02

Job Function
% change from Jan. 2001
Process Engineering (Chemical)
Project Engineering
Systems Analysis & Design
Design/Construction Engineering
Financial/Treasury Analysis
Accounting (Private)
Accounting (Public)
Management Trainee (Entry-Level Mgmt.)

Source: Winter 2002 Salary Survey, National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Salary Survey is a quarterly report of starting salary offers to new college graduates in 70 disciplines at the bachelor's degree level. The survey compiles data from college and university career services offices nationwide.

Dawn Rywalt of North Brunswick, N.J., has a bachelor’s in computer science and a master’s in information systems. For 10 years she worked in industry as a computer programmer, earning nearly six figures. Then she quit to teach computer information systems at a technical college at a salary of $48,000.

“I miss the money,” Rywalt says, “but I find that the job is a lot less stressful. I’m not on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s good to get time off whenever the school is closed.

“And it would be so easy to jump back into industry.” Naturally, educators play up the non-financial advantages of teaching. They hope that benefits such as the rewards of molding young minds, generous holiday schedules, shorter and more flexible work hours, summers off and professional development opportunities can offset the salary disparity.

“Here’s one of the reasons teaching appeals to engineers: When you are a teacher, you go in the room, close the door and you are in charge,” says Lee V. Stiff, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “You have a certain autonomy, certain freedom to shape your tasks and your day that you just don’t find in some industry jobs.”

Lifestyle advantages rank high, especially with professionals who have young children. When Rywalt started a family, she found that the teaching schedule offered her more flexibility. “I teach 25 hours a week. I teach in the mornings when my kids are at school, then I’m home in the afternoons when they are,” she says. “All of my friends are having kids. It’s time to take that break [from industry]; you can always go back. I’m also starting to see more guys who are taking care of their kids and are seeing the same things.”

Bonus Babies

Government programs to induce professionals to switch to teaching are proliferating.

In the Fort Worth school district, the third-largest in Texas, a beginning teacher makes $33,050 annually and receives a $2,000 signing bonus to teach in an area of need such as science or special education, according to an Education Week report.

In Houston, district officials began last year giving a $5,000 signing bonus (paid over two years) for a new teacher in math, science or ESL/bilingual education. An additional $500 bonus was offered for a teacher who finished college with a 3.0 or higher GPA.

In Utah, Gov. Mike Leavitt proposed last year a $20,000 signing bonus for new math and science teachers. State budget woes early in 2002 figured to scale back the program, but smaller bonuses were still a possibility as legislators debated Leavitt’s proposal.

In Massachusetts, public school officials in 1999 offered a $20,000 signing bonus to professionals who passed accelerated certification programs to teach in needed subjects. In just two years, the program attracted 149 former engineers and other professionals.

These efforts spawned a federal program, enacted in November 2001, aimed at improving teacher quality. The U.S. Department of Education earmarked about $31 million for a “Transitions to Teaching” program designed to lure professionals into the classroom. Forty-two three year grants were given to state and local school districts. They use the money to give professionals special assistance, guidance, support, and in some cases, cash stipends and incentives to make teaching a long-term career.

“Casting a wider net for experienced professionals—those with a wealth of experience and knowledge but who lack a teaching credential—will help school districts address teacher shortages, particularly in subjects where there is great demand for qualified instructors,” U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said.

But Stiff says the signing bonuses are misguided. “How are you going to lure people who are making very good salaries [in industry] with a one-time bonus of a couple of thousand dollars?” he asks. “If the teaching salaries were just a little better—they don’t have to be like corporate America, maybe $10,000 to $15,000 more—we wouldn’t lose so many people to the field.”

More Math Classes?

Most states require some form of teacher training. It typically comes via a certification process or a degree in education. A certain amount of student teaching often is required, as well. In all, the training can amount to a year or more of time before a person, even one with advanced degrees in engineering, is allowed to take over a junior high or high school math class.

Some school districts are willing to speed up the process in emergency situations. In North Dakota, the state department of public instruction can issue interim emergency licenses to anyone with a bachelor’s degree to fill vacancies in areas of critical needs, such as math and science, said Janet Welk, executive director of the department’s Education Standards and Practices Board, in an Associated Press report. The license is good for 40 days, during which time the recipient must enroll in a teacher education program and start the process toward full certification, including spending time student teaching or in formal mentoring.

Substitute teachers usually don’t have as stringent of requirements. Technical schools and community colleges also exhibit more flexibility in judging a teacher’s readiness and/or worthiness.

Stiff says engineering professionals, even those with advanced degrees, might be surprised to discover they must take other mathematics courses to teach general math in grades 7-12. Schools require a broader coursework than an engineer’s typical focus on applied mathematics. These courses often include different types of geometry, data analysis/statistics and modern algebra.

It is common for an engineering professional to take 12 units of math along with education courses and 10-12 weeks of student teaching to meet requirements, Stiff says. “They should be able to do it in a calendar year, but if they’re working at the same time, it might take two years.”

Average annual classroom teacher salaries
School Year Elementary Secondary All
1990-91 $32,490 $33,896 $33,084
1991-92 $33,479 $34,827 $34,063
1992-93 $34,350 $35,880 $36,029
1993-94 $35,233 $36,566 $35,737
1994-95 $36,088 $37,523 $36,675
1995-96 $37,138 $38,397 $37,642
1996-97 $38,039 $39,184 $38,477
1997-98 $39,056 $40,040 $39,417
1998-99 $40,275 $41,159 $40,580
1999-2000 $41,466 $42,430 $41,724
2000-01 $42,613 $43,663 $42,898
Source: National Education Association

Shop Around

Teaching algebra and geometry to 14- and 15-year-olds might not be an engineer’s idea of fun and fulfillment. But public high school math is just one of several options available to an engineer who is interested in teaching. Private schools, community colleges, public and private universities, and trade and technical schools also provide ample opportunities to pass on your expertise. And each offers something different.

For example, teaching a course at a major college or university likely will result in a higher per-hour wage. Be aware, however, that many colleges hire instructors on a course-by-course basis, not as full-time faculty. To become a full-time faculty member often requires a Ph.D. Only the smaller colleges may be willing to accept a professor without an advanced degree—at lower pay, of course, Stiff says.

Because of the certification and additional education requirements for K-12 and university teaching jobs, Stiff says community colleges and technical schools are a better fit for most professionals who desire to teach. “Your credentials tend to be your experience in the field rather than certification,” he says.

Rywalt says a friend from the professional ranks answered an ad for a teaching job at a technical college and wound up as an assistant dean because of her qualifications and experience.

Engineers, Teachers: Same Mold?

Success in professional engineering and in classroom math/ science teaching should go together, says Ted Kohlenberger, a 10-year project engineer with Kohlenberger Associates Consulting Engineers Inc. in Fullerton, Calif. He says engineers and teachers are wired similarly.

“Generally, people in engineering recognized at some point that the discipline wasn’t geared to personal wealth but was a satisfaction-oriented career pursuit,” Kohlenberger says. “As a group, people in engineering and technical fields are open and sensitive to issues of career satisfaction and professional development, just like teachers. They go to technical seminars, attend Saturday classes, go to night school to learn new technologies . . . and not necessarily on a paying basis.”

He adds that as the engineering work force ages it should offer a primary pool of teaching talent. “What a great thing it would be for a person to graduate, work 20 to 25 years, then get into teaching as a second career. A person can then bring that life experience into the classroom.”

Job Opportunities

The United States has more than 89,000 public schools through high school age, plus about 27,000 private schools, and another 4,000-plus colleges and “higher education” institutions, U.S. Department of Education statistics show. In other words, there are a lot of jobs in teaching.

To answer the question at the beginning of this story: Logic dictates that no single answer fits everyone. But if teaching interests an engineering graduate or professional, probability says that he or she can find a scenario that works for them.

Teaching, Education Facts

  • By 2008, public school enrollment will exceed 54 million, an increase of nearly 2 million children over today. Enrollment in elementary schools is expected to increase by 17% and in high schools by 26%. In high-poverty urban and rural districts alone, more than 700,000 new teachers will be needed in the next 10 years. (Source: National Center for Education Statistics, The Baby Boom Echo Report, 1998)
  • Teachers, ages 22-28, earned an average $7,894 less per year than other college-educated adults of the same age in 1998. The gap is three times greater for teachers 44-50, who earned $23,655 less than their counterparts in other occupations. The salary gap is the worst among teachers with a master’s degree—teachers in that category earned $32,511 less than non-teachers. (Source: Education Week, Quality Counts 2000)
  • In a typical year, an estimated 6% of the nation’s teaching force leaves the profession and more than 7% change schools. (Source: National Center for Education Statistics)
  • Twenty percent of all new hires leave teaching within three years. (Source: National Center for Education Statistics)
  • The greatest teaching shortages are in bilingual and special education, mathematics, science (particularly the physical sciences), computer science, English-as-a-Second-Language and foreign languages. (Source: American Association for Employment in Education)
  • Less than half of the teachers hired during the past nine years participated in formal induction programs during their first teaching year. (Source: National Center for Education Statistics)

Randy Franz is an independent journalist who writes about careers, health and sports for consumer and trade magazines.

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