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Is Teaching ESL "Recession-Proof"?

by Anne Merritt Aug 17, 2010

We had set our sights on Japan. Yes, a year of hiking, karaoke, bento boxes and hyperdisciplined students. We researched cities and companies. We polished our resumes. We cast our nets into the online world of TESL job postings.

I thought it wouldn’t be hard. With a few years’ experience under our belts, I thought we would be able to cherry-pick TESL jobs. The offers didn’t exactly come rolling in; it was more like a desperate trickle. Part-time jobs, jobs that started that very week, jobs that didn’t sponsor a work visa. We read about the bankruptcy of a major language school; how hundreds of teachers were suddenly jobless in Japan. We attended a group interview where young applicants had flown in from hundreds of miles away for the chance to secure a job. We got some offers, less than I hoped, but they weren’t great. After months of looking, we set our sights on a different country.

I had heard countless job sites and recruiters refer to teaching ESL as “recession-proof,” and I had figured it to be true. Education is always in demand, right?

Well, not so fast. TESL has been impacted by the recession too. There are no daily layoffs, no ghost towns where language schools once stood, but as I learned during my Japanese job hunt, the industry has changed. Here is a guide to understanding these changes, and knowing how to prepare yourself if you want to teach English overseas in the current job climate.

More Competition

It used to be said that if you spoke English, you could find a job teaching it somewhere.

This may still be true in some countries, but by and large, the industry is getting more competitive. Sure, most language school applications list bare-minimum requirements; a passport, an undergraduate degree, a native speaker’s proficiency in English. There was a time when the bulk of ESL teachers were fresh university graduates, and these requirements were all they had.

Nowadays, more and more people are switching (or being forced out) of careers, and “recession-proof” TESL is growing in popularity. You may meet the requirements for a great-looking job, but other applicants may pack additional ammo on their resumes: TESL certificates, Masters degrees, teaching experience, or foreign language fluency.

It’s good news for language schools, who can be choosier about who they hire. It’s good news for students, who are getting well-qualified teachers. But if you don’t have extra flair on your resume, it’s bad news for you, the applicant.

Prepare Yourself: At the very least, get a TESL certificate. You can take an affordable 100-hour course online or at a community center. For some teaching practice, you can volunteer at a language school or offer free language lessons or English conversation practice in your area.

Low Teacher Turnover

In a precarious job climate, people know to hold onto a good thing. In the past, travelers have been inclined to take a TESL job for a year, experience a new culture, then go home again. Now, ESL teachers know that going home might involve months of thankless job-hunting and living with their parents. More and more teachers are staying overseas for years at a time, hoping to build up savings and ride out the recession in their home country.

In South Korea, the Ministry of Education’s EPIK program offers 1100 public school positions for ESL teachers. According to one recruiter, less than 500 positions were open for this academic year. Over half of EPIK’s teachers re-signed their contracts, meaning fewer spots and more competition for prospective teachers. In some regions of the country, a year or two can pass before these teaching jobs become available.

Even teachers who don’t want to stay at their current schools are at a vantage point by being in the country and building a year’s worth of contacts. On-site teachers can apply for jobs in person, and scoop them up before the position ever gets posted online.

Prepare Yourself: Allow yourself plenty of time to apply for jobs. Most countries have specific hiring periods; typically in late winter (for September contracts) and late summer (for January contracts).

Fluctuating Currencies

Many currencies worldwide have fluctuated heavily in this recession. Even now, we can’t be sure that they have stabilized. For ESL teachers, though salaries may remain constant on paper, your savings may be worth less than you thought once you take that money out of the country.

In Brazil and South Korea, teachers’ salaries are worth less because of falling currency rates. In China and Vietnam, however, the currencies have fared well in this economy and your salary will be worth more when you change your money.

Countries that were once known as ESL moneymakers might not be as lucrative nowadays. The opposite is also true; you may be surprised with how much you can save in a less affluent but economically strong nation. If money is a big factor in how you choose a TESL destination, then research the currencies of countries that appeal to you.

Prepare Yourself: Sort out your finances before going overseas. If you owe monthy payments on credit cards or student loans, look at the current exchange rate and budget how much you’ll have to wire back each month. Also, remember to budget an emergency airfare fund, in case you need to fly home for any reason, or in case your school closes down unexpectedly — it happens more than you think.

Trouble for Schools?

So how does enrollment fare in a recession? Tough to say. It would vary from country to country, city to city, even neighborhood to neighborhood. On one hand, if companies or individuals are reducing their budgets, language lessons may be a trimmable expense. On the other hand, if people are out of work and looking to add pep to their resumes, they might dive into language studies as way of gaining edge in the competitive job market.

Language schools may boom, bust, or remain steady. If you’re being paid an hourly wage and not a set monthly salary, this means boom or bust for your income as well.

What does this mean for teachers? Bree, an American teacher in Italy, observed the stability of government work in 2009, the depth of the recession. “The majority of our work came in the form of contracting teachers out to local high schools,” she says, “paid by the government. So while businesses and corporations seemed to be cutting back on providing English classes, the government seemed to be requiring more native teachers in the public school system.”

The most secure jobs are said to be through public schools and government programs. Funding is backed by the state, and even in a recession, the demand is constant.

Prepare Yourself: Unless you have contacts at a private school, working for public schools is the safest bet. Japan’s JET program, for example, is a renowned ministry-run initiative. Some private companies will also sub-contract their teachers to local schools. Remember that these are plum jobs, and you may need to start the application process up to 8 months in advance.

Community Connection

Do you have a story of how your teaching career has been affected by the recession? Share in the comments below.

If you want to learn more about teaching English overseas, check out Matador’s Teaching ESL Focus Page.

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