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Fewer applicants, more openings for elementary school teaching jobs

This Oct. 16, 2015 file photo shows, from right, the signboards of the Cultural Affairs Agency, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Sports Agency in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Motohiro Negishi)

TOKYO -- The number of people applying for public elementary school teaching positions across Japan reached a record low of 3.2 people for every available position in fiscal 2018, the education ministry has found.

This is the seventh consecutive year in which the figure has dropped, and a decrease to about one-fourth the figure in the 2000 fiscal year, when public service was a popular profession during what was dubbed the "ice age of employment" in Japan. Back then, there was one available elementary school teaching position for every 12.5 applicants.

It is said to be difficult to maintain a high standard of teachers when the applicants-to-jobs ratio dips below 3.0, meaning the current rate is nearing the danger zone. There have been mass job openings due to the retirement of baby-boomer teachers, but at the same time, job hunters are believed to be avoiding the extremely labor-intensive and time-consuming job of being elementary school teachers.

According to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, in fiscal 2018, the applicants-to-jobs ratio was 3.2 at elementary schools (down 0.3 points from the previous fiscal year), 6.8 at junior high schools (down 0.6 points), and 7.7 at high schools (up 0.6 points), highlighting a grave shortage at the elementary school level.

The ministry cites the rising number of job openings as the reason for the low applicants-to-jobs rate at elementary schools. Large numbers of teachers who were hired in the 1980s for incoming children of the baby-boomer generation, born in the early 1970s, have reached retirement. This has resulted in the number of available elementary school teaching jobs rising 6.1% nationwide from the previous year, to 15,934. Meanwhile, at high schools, where mass hirings did not happen until later, the number of jobs dropped by 12.3% nationwide compared to the previous year, to 4,231.

Other reasons, such as a trend toward economic recovery that has allowed for increased hiring at private companies, and the limited number of colleges and universities that provide curricula for students to obtain teaching certificates are considered as possible reasons for the deficit in elementary school teaching applicants.

Among prefectures and government ordinance cities, Niigata Prefecture on the Sea of Japan coast, at 1.8, had the lowest applicants-to-jobs ratio, followed by the southwestern Japan prefectures of Fukuoka with 1.9 and Nagasaki with 2.0. Kagoshima Prefecture, also to the southwest, saw the highest ratio at 7.4.

In lowest-ranking Niigata Prefecture, the prefectural board of education is trying its best to secure applicants, and starting in fiscal 2020 will exempt applicants from practical music and physical education tests. "These are serious numbers," an official with the Niigata Prefectural Board of Education told the Mainichi Shimbun. "We want to take all measures at our disposal and raise the applicants-to-jobs ratio."

Tsutomu Kenmochi, a professor at Teikyo University of Science who is well versed in teacher training, pointed out, "This is likely the result of schools being known for having poor labor conditions." According to a fiscal 2016 education ministry survey, 30% of elementary school teachers worked hours considered to put them at risk of death from overwork. "Unless working conditions are revamped and treatment of teachers is improved, while simultaneously making it possible for young teachers to communicate the appeal of working as elementary school teachers to job hunters, the applicants-to-jobs ratio will continue to drop," Kenmochi added.

(Japanese original by Takuya Izawa, City News Department)

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