Want a Good Workforce? Pay for One!

Yesterday The Curmudgeon came down on the New York Times and others for acting as if an improved economy that gives some people more job opportunities and options could be a bad thing. His message to those complaining that this leverage would increase employee turnover and make their lives a little harder:


As he has written in the past, The Curmudgeon generally frowns upon citing “the market” for how things are or how they should be decided. Markets, we all know, are imperfect, and letting markets decide everything would be a disaster. Still, let’s look at two examples in which the market is sending a message and how those affected have – and have not – responded to that message.

The greater Philadelphia area, and a bit beyond, is fortunate to have an absolutely first-rate convenience store chain serving it. The company is called Wawa, after the small Pennsylvania town in which it was founded, and its stores are almost everything you’d want in a convenience store: well-organized, well-run, affordable, clean, and convenient. More than once over the years The Curmudgeon has questioned whether owners of 7-Eleven stores just hang their heads in shame when they go into a Wawa and see what others are doing with the same basic concept.

A little farther west in Pennsylvania is another regional chain, called Sheetz. Like Wawa, Sheetz puts the typical convenience store to shame.

Both Wawa and Sheetz are family-owned, and for years the owners of the two companies talked informally to compare notes and exchange ideas. They had a tacit agreement between them not to enter into one another’s markets, but for reasons of which The Curmudgeon is unaware but most likely involve the idea that you can never be too rich, that agreement has fallen by the wayside and they are beginning to vie for customers in a few common markets.

But they’re not just competing for customers: they’re also competing for employees. It’s easy to look down on people who work in such stores, but when you go into a Wawa or Sheetz store you’re almost always struck by the quality of the people they employ. Both companies must be very good at choosing and training their workers because when customers interact with those workers it’s almost always a positive experience. Even the people who pump gasoline at Wawa stores are a clear cut above the typical gas pump jockey.

Apparently the supply of people who can do this work well is limited, though, because in the areas in which both stores operate they’re having trouble staffing their stores. So do you know what both stores have decided to do?


In Pennsylvania, where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, Sheetz recently announced that it’s raising its own minimum starting salary to $10 an hour, raising shift supervisors to $13 an hour, and raising assistant managers to $16 an hour.

Sheetz needed to do this to compete because Wawa pays better: it, too, is raising its minimum starting salary to $10 an hour, raising its pay band for all customer service workers, and giving all of its associates a five percent increase on top of their annual merit raises. It pays its shift supervisors the same $13 Sheetz will be paying, pays its assistant general managers $17 an hour, and boasts of what it calls a “strong bonus program.”

Contrast the performance of these two well-run and successful businesses with that of the sad-sack school district of Philadelphia.

It’s now February, more than five months into the school year, and there are still 162 vacancies in full-time teaching positions in Philadelphia’s public school system.   As a result, the unfortunate children in 162 classrooms are suffering an unending string of substitute teachers. Think back to your own school days: a substitute teacher pretty much meant a day off, didn’t it?

Well, how about 90 days off so far this year?

The school district has launched ambitious and creative recruiting efforts, as demonstrated by the 1050 new teachers it has hired since July of last year. So why hasn’t it been able to fill the final 162 vacancies and give a few thousand kids at least a fighting chance to get a decent education?

Well, there are a few reasons.

Some of Philadelphia’s public schools are located in pretty bad areas. Some people will only take jobs in those areas if they have no choice, and clearly, teachers have other choices and are taking them.

Another consideration is that the city’s teachers’ union has been without a contract for three years. People who have a choice are no doubt choosing not to pursue employment in an environment of such uncertainty.

Then there’s the concern that the school district’s leaders, and city and state government in general, have more or less declared war on teachers. In their eyes, everything that goes wrong in schools is the fault of teachers. The school district also seems intent on turning over troubled schools to charter school companies, and every time that happens, teachers get reassigned or lose their jobs because charters aren’t generally interested in the services of trained, professional teachers; they’d rather take their chances with cheaper, untrained amateurs.

But mostly it’s about money.

While public school teachers in Pennsylvania are among the better paid in the country, and those in southeastern Pennsylvania are the highest paid in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia is surrounded by public school districts that pay more. On top of that, some public school districts in New Jersey are closer to the center of Philadelphia than some outlying parts of the city itself and they, too, pay better.

On top of even that, two years ago Philadelphia school officials proposed cutting teachers’ salaries.

While at the same time asking them to pay more for their health care benefits.

And oh, yes, trying to increase the number of hours they work.

There’s also a pretty serious expectation that teachers will purchase a lot of supplies for their classrooms. Schools have copy machines, for example, but teachers have to supply their own copy paper. And paper towels. In many places, things like pencils, too.

On salaries that are lower than their peers in surrounding communities.

Who aren’t expected to pay for those things themselves.

What does this mean? It means that when teachers have a choice of where to work, why on earth would they choose to do so in a place that will pay them less and treat them worse?

And it explains why we don’t read about teacher shortages and teacher-less classrooms in the Philadelphia suburbs of Bensalem or Broomall, in Horsham or Haddonfield, in Media or Moorestown, in Drexel Hill or Cherry Hill or even Sharon Hill. They get all the teachers they need and we all understand why they do.

But it means more: it means that elected officials serving Philadelphia don’t care enough about public education to do anything about it. Complain? Sure. Act? No way.

It means that the people who are running the school system – the three people appointed by the governor and two appointed by the mayor, and the professional educators they hire – don’t care enough about public education to do anything about it. Complain? Sure. Act? No way.

And we already know, of course, that one of the reasons all those folks can get away with their indifference is that they know the people of Philadelphia don’t care about it. Complain. Sure – well, occasionally. Act? Are you kidding?

Because the solution is simple. Do what Wawa and Scheetz are doing: pay attention to the market, identify the going rate for teachers, and pay it. It’s that simple. If you can’t get what you want, raise the salary until you can. The current starting salary in the Philadelphia school district, for example, is about $45,000, and we know, absolutely, that $45,000 isn’t enough to fill all the teaching jobs.

So raise it to $50,000 and see if that changes anything.

And if that doesn’t, try $55,000 – and then keep on tweaking it until you find the number that makes the difference.

Like Wawa and Sheetz. Pay what the market demands or leave your customers – your students (but sadly, not nearly enough of their parents) – dissatisfied and poorly served.

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