Teacher shortage?

How Covid-19 is changing the recruitment landscape for 2021

Diane Jacoutot, one of the most experienced recruiters on the international scene. analyses the contradictory impact of Covid-19 on recruitment, and predicts a teacher shortage in 2021 – 22.

Continuing volatility

Recruitment for international school staff takes place 6 months to a full year before deployment with many schools in recent years moving their hiring as early as possible due to looming teacher shortages. Although the first Covid-19 vaccines are receiving approval, there are signs of an emerging ‘third wave’ and even if many countries can return to near-normal by next academic year, the effects of Covid-19 on teacher recruitment to international schools will be felt well into the future.

So what are the major factors likely to affect the shape of international teacher recruitment in the next two years?

2020 sees falling demand for international teachers

Over 80% of international schools serve a host national population, so the health of the host economy affects the enrolment and number of teachers needed. Record drops in oil prices and damage to the travel and tourism industry have resulted in most countries teetering on the brink of recession  A recent report by UNCTAD published on 19 November 2020 indicates the global economy will contract by 4% in 2020. How and when recovery happens worldwide will depend on the resiliency of each country’s economy.

Examining the two biggest demand-side markets – the Middle East and the Far East – the impact of Covid is clear.  Edvectus job vacancy data from September to December 2020 shows the number of available jobs fell by 11% compared to the same timeframe in 2019 but the effect has not been consistent, as Figure 1 shows:

Figure 1: Change in number of jobs by region Sept-Dec 2020 vs 2019

The Middle East job orders have decreased 55% compared to the same time last year. Schools in the region are still reeling from the impact of declining enrolment and, because of online or mixed mode teaching, need fewer teachers. Visibility into future enrolment is uncertain, and fewer schools are willing to take risks and hire speculatively.

China bucks the trend

China, on the other hand, has more jobs year-on-year as their economy is one of the few that grew in 2020. Already growing before the pandemic, the demand is largely driven by bilingual schools that teach a blended Chinese curriculum. These schools often have high fees and offer high salaries to their desired teachers. Although many are sporting an international brand name that belies their blended nature, they can find it difficult to attract teachers without an established track record in China. Schools in this region, knowing the challenges, act early to snap up the best teachers on the market.

Early Years teachers: current slump and coming boom?

The types of teachers being hired post-Covid has shifted. Early Years teachers are in much less demand now as parental desire for these non-compulsory school places is still uncertain for 2021. In the Middle East demand has dropped precipitously. Will parents have the means and the will to send their young children back into school, or will they decide to save money and reduce risk by keeping them home?  Schools appear to be hedging their bets and holding off until visibility increases.

The comparatively light demand for Early Years teachers might indicate an acute future problem looming if parents feel confident later in the year. Teacher availability is cyclic, with shortages from late March onward, as shown in Figure 2:

Figure 2: New Teachers registering to teach abroad over time

Secondary teachers: a looming shortage in core subjects?

Core academic subjects are in most demand. Secondary English, Maths, Science all had robust demand in 2020, whereas non-core subjects such as Physical Education, Arts, Humanities, Special Needs and Languages have dropped in demand between 25% and 80% compared to prior year.  Leadership vacancies at all levels saw a 25% drop, reflecting less movement of staff and elimination of positions.

Stringent bachelor’s degree matching requirements in Middle East countries has restricted the market even further, excluding otherwise suitably experienced and qualified teachers. Right now the impact won’t be felt acutely due to depression in demand, but the advent of a vaccine and/or clarity in enrolment schools means schools may scramble to find teachers they can actually hire. This shortage will be especially acute for Mathematics, Science and Computer Studies/ICT due to a lack of STEM graduates entering teaching from the US, UK, etc.

Applications down, risk aversion up

Teacher application numbers are down 30% year on year from September to December compared to last year. Furthermore, those teachers on the market are much less willing to take risks. They are asking more questions before and after interview and they are very specific about the kind and location of schools they will consider. Most are happy to stay put rather than make a risky move.  Hundreds of stories of woe flooded the forums last year, causing a lack of confidence in a written contract or offer letter.  Teachers now seek locations that are well understood and feel ‘safer’ from a Covid-19 perspective with lower numbers, a controlled response to the epidemic, and a well-developed infrastructure such as Dubai, Singapore, Bangkok, Beijing and Shanghai.

Figure 3: Change in number of applications by region 2020 vs 2019

There is more interest in Beijing, and a decrease in interest in Hong Kong and in 2nd and 3rd tier areas.  Beijing in past years had been the subject of terrible press in the west, mainly focussed on pollution. Now with the Beijing winter Olympics in the offing and bigger news stories afoot, Beijing-bashing has subsided. The only catch is a growing perception of racism in the Far East, which is causing larger numbers of ethnic minority teachers to discount it outright.

In contrast, the shine has come off Hong Kong which used to draw prospective applicants in Dubai-like proportions. The possible ‘Chinafication’ of Hong Kong and civil unrest are putting people off.

Location, location, location

All of this means that schools in locations with a well-defined response to Covid-19 such as Dubai, Beijing, Singapore and Bangkok are experiencing a flood of applications at the expense of others. Schools that will struggle are those in traditionally less popular locations such as Kuwait, 2nd and 3rd Tier Cities in China and Egypt.  Regions that are anticipated to have a slower inoculation rollout or less developed public healthcare systems, such as many Latin American and South Asian countries, will also suffer a shortage.

Future undersupply of teachers looming?

With both the supply and demand factors profoundly skewed by the Pandemic, we see a teacher shortage looming for the coming academic year. With a shallow pool of available teachers at the start of 2021, a lack of visibility to 2021-2022 enrolment and a possible return to near-normal teaching next year, we expect a severe lack of teachers available to hire from March onwards. Schools in China, which historically plan and hire well ahead, have been out in force in November and December 2020, and they are hiring the best teachers for the best salaries in the marketplace, leaving many forward thinking schools to wonder how they will fill all of their vacancies in an uncertain environment.

How to prepare

Understanding one’s foothold in the market, and trends in supply and demand are essential for creating an effective recruitment strategy. Each year the market is different, but the effects of the worldwide pandemic have been particularly disruptive. School leaders will be caught between wanting to be fiscally responsible, planning for the worst, and needing to hire the best teachers when they are available. Teachers will be queuing for top jobs in top locations, ignoring the rest.

Hiring as early as possible, and knowing how the market is likely to change over time is the best way forward.  If a school is lucky enough to be in a highly desirable area, it will experience longer teacher availability.  However, if a school is outside of these areas or less established or in a region with very restrictive MOE criteria in place, it will be affected by the shallowness of the teacher supply pool in the New Year.  Whilst both demand and supply have dropped, the timing of teacher availability is highly cyclic. We anticipate most schools will be later than normal to confirm their vacancies, and this confirmation is likely to happen after teacher supply has dropped precipitously.

Assess the risk and hire early if possible

The best way to prepare is to hire as early as possible and take calculated risks. Acknowledging the long-term shortage of STEM teachers, particularly in the Middle East with very specific bachelor’s degrees requirements, hiring good STEM teachers speculatively might be justifiable risks to take.  The looming late-season demand for Early Years teachers should also be kept in mind.

Planning for video interviews

Video interviewing is taking the place of job fairs, and is not without its challenges. Not all teachers can access Zoom, which is blocked in China and the Middle East along with WhatsApp calling and Skype. In China, WeChat is the go-to app but it’s not easily available outside of China. Schools are trying any number of other options such as Microsoft Teams and even Zomo in China, Each requires a teacher to navigate around a different system. Providing a step-by-step ‘how to connect’ will solve issues before they start, ensuring fewer missed interviews.

Be prepared for questions!

Finally, HR teams should be prepared to answer more questions from every teacher earlier in the process. Developing an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) sheet will save much time and effort. Teachers will definitely need more reassurance this year, so you are best to proactively address as many questions as possible.


Diane Jacoutot is the founder and Managing Director of Edvectus Ltd which specialises in developing innovative and knowledge-based strategies for the recruitment of western trained teachers to international schools. Mrs Jacoutot’s articles have been published in the British International Schools magazine, Canadian Teacher Magazine, The Australian Teacher and Sec Ed.

This article is a summary of a recent White Paper Edvectus have prepared analysing the complex impact of the Pandemic on patterns of international teacher recruitment. 

For the full white paper see:


For more about Edvectus see edvectus.com


FEATURE IMAGE:  by Parveender Lamba from Pixabay