The B.C. debate over teacher compensation

| February 7, 2012 | 0 Comments

How should we evaluate the BCTF’s position?

Troy Media – by Jock Finlayson

At the heart of the dispute pitting the B.C. Teachers’ Federation against the provincial government and its bargaining agent, the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association, is a debate over what constitutes fair compensation.

The union insists teachers are underpaid and deserve a substantial pay boost, notwithstanding the Liberal government’s “net-zero” policy that limits the scope for wage adjustments across most of the public sector over the period July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2012. Among other things, the BCTF complains that B.C. has dropped to 8th in the country in teacher pay and is no longer able to compete with other provinces.

How should we evaluate the BCTF’s position?

BCTF’s argument suspect

To begin with, to argue that B.C. stands 8th in teacher compensation involves lumping the three northern territories in with the 10 provinces when making inter-jurisdictional comparisons. Canada’s northern territories have very peculiar labour markets. The far north is characterized by exceptionally harsh climates and high living costs, reflecting geographic remoteness, scattered settlements, and miniscule populations (the three territories together have fewer people than Coquitlam, B.C.). Pay scales for almost all occupations are higher in the territories than in “southern” Canada. By including the territories in the pay review, the BCTF draws an artificial picture of the true competitive landscape for teachers.

The evidence indicates that teachers represented by the BCTF actually rank 4th in pay, for both average starting and maximum salaries, judged relative to their counterparts in the other nine provinces. The average starting salary for new teachers is $47,461 in B.C., less than in Alberta ($54,347), but higher than in Ontario ($43,959) or in last-place Quebec ($39,375). The average maximum salary is $75,083 in this province, which is less than in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario but almost $11,000 higher than in bottom-ranked Prince Edward Island.

As it happens, overall compensation for teachers in B.C. closely matches where our province sits in the national pecking order on most economy-wide measures of income:

According to Statistics Canada, as of 2010 British Columbia stood 4th among the 10 provinces in disposable income per person.

B.C. ranks 5th on the broadest gauge of employment earnings – wages, salaries and supplementary income per employee.

Finally, B.C. is 4th among the provinces in average weekly earnings, behind Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

So it’s fair to say that teachers in this province are compensated at a level that aligns quite well with what employed British Columbians in general earn, when looked at in a Canadian context.

What about the claim that B.C. is suffering teacher shortages? Certainly, if school districts were systematically unable to recruit or retain enough qualified teachers, the public would have grounds for concern. Yet in aggregate there is no undersupply of teachers in the province.

Indeed, taken together, the education faculties which operate at several B.C. universities are turning out significantly more graduates than there are (or will be) job vacancies in the K-12 system. (Parenthetically, one must ask why the Ministry of Advanced Education has funded so many university-based faculties of education, especially since B.C. is projected to experience skill shortages in other occupations.)

Nor are significant numbers of teachers decamping for other jurisdictions. The available data show that the gross inflow of teachers from the rest of Canada roughly equals the numbers leaving B.C. for other provinces, resulting in little net change.

Shortages do exist in a few areas within the K-12 system, such as high school math and physics teachers, speech language specialists, and French immersion instructors. Some rural/remote communities also face recruiting challenges (and have for many years).

The appropriate response to these kinds of labour market pressures is to use targeted strategies that address specific shortages, such as market-based pay adjustments for teachers who possess hard-to-find skills, or work in remote areas. From the perspective of B.C. taxpayers, it makes no sense to increase compensation for all 45,000 teachers in the K-12 system because of supply-demand imbalances affecting a relatively small proportion of the entire occupation.

B.C. teachers on not shortchanged

When it comes to trends in compensation, it’s hard to make a case that B.C. teachers have been shortchanged. For the period 2006-2011, the minimum pay boost for BCTF members was 14 per cent, while the maximum percentage increase was about 21 per cent. These pay hikes either match or exceed those garnered by most private sector workers in the province.

Finally, when comparing remuneration across occupations, one should not forget the non-wage elements of compensation. The typical private sector employee gets three weeks of paid vacation in exchange for an annual wage/salary, while teachers enjoy (at least) 12 weeks. Teachers also have access to pension plans and other fringe benefits that are far more generous than those found in most private sector organizations.

In short, teachers in British Columbia are not undercompensated, and arguably are treated reasonably well compared to the rest of the employed population.

Jock Finlayson is Executive Vice President of the Business Council of British Columbia.

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