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KC Dignan, PhD.

Introduction

It can be very challenging to find VI professionals, or any other specialized educator. Based on a survey of 170 special education administrators in Texas (2005), many districts either do not know where to look, or they employ inefficient methods to find these very specialized professionals. That same survey revealed that 75% of those who have sought a VI professional consider it either moderately or very difficult.  Human resources (HR) departments are not always conversant in issues related to specialized educators.  They must focus primarily on high-volume hiring, such as elementary teachers, and/or critical-need areas, such as math, bilingual, or science.

Regardless of the discipline, recruiting low-incidence or highly specialized personnel presents significant challenges.  It is frequently necessary to go beyond the local community, and/or to rely on methods not typically used in districts.  It may be necessary to provide the HR department discipline-specific information.  This chapter presents a new approach to recruitment, and provides recruitment tips for non-HR professionals.  This approach focuses on the candidate, and is based on market research.

District administrators may face several challenges when recruiting a VI professional (VI teachers and O&M specialists).  Although new distance education options have changed access to training, the fact remains that there are a limited number of certified VI professionals available.  Complicating the situation further, many experienced VI professionals are approaching retirement and will be leaving the field within the next 5 years.  As a result, district administrators must be proactive, including succession planning, when addressing their VI needs.

Assumptions

Recruitment is a broad topic, too broad for this document to cover thoroughly.  Therefore, the following assumptions have been made:

  • Recruitment is a form of advocacy.  As such, the strategies described here can be applied to recruitment or advocating for other changes in one’s district.
  • Administrators will use the professionals in the HR office within their district.
  • Administrators have a network they typically use when seeking education professionals.
  • Administrators are knowledgeable and skilled when it comes to managing their program, but may have limited information and experience when it comes to effective recruitment, especially in specialized fields.
  • Administrators have access to:
    • detailed, current data about their VI caseloads, enabling them to focus on the specific types of expertise needed;
    • solid information regarding the social, political, demographic, and geographic make-up of their district; and
    • information about the community in which the VI professional(s) will be living and working.
  • Administrators will partner with existing VI staff and/or resources to maximize their recruiting efforts.
  • The dynamics of recruiting are fundamentally different from hiring.

Why include recruitment information?  Doesn’t my HR department do that for me?

Recruitment is about bringing someone to the table.

Hiring is about completing legal functions.

These are two separate functions and require different strategies.

Human resource (HR) departments may be excellent at hiring educators for many areas.  However, hiring and recruiting are two separate functions.  In recent years there has been a surplus of educators in many areas.  As a result, many HR departments have focused on filtering applications, not recruitment.

Many districts face significant challenges when it comes to recruiting in specialized disciplines, such as special education and/or visual impairments.  HR departments typically just don’t understand the needs.  With less than 40 VI professional training programs nationally, HR departments are not knowledgeable about where and how to look for VI professionals.

Another significant factor is the very real difference between needing a VI professional and formally posting a position.  Based on the results from three separate surveys of special education administrators in Texas, there is a very strong correlation between the administrator’s willingness to advocate for a new or additional VI professional and his or her confidence that it will get filled (Dignan, 1997, 2001, 2005).  As a result, district administrators are more likely to advocate for a new or additional position when someone indicates an interest or willingness to be trained. 

What are the main issues in effective recruiting?

Regardless of the discipline, efficient recruiting is based on knowledge of:

  • Population
    • Knowing the target population—who they are and what they care about.
    • Understanding the issues that are important to current VI professionals and those mid-career professionals who may be interested in becoming a VI professional.
    • Understanding who your competition is, whether another district or another profession.
  • Timelines
    • Macro-timelines: Understanding how much time it may take to recruit a dynamic mid-career professional who is committed to your community and district, and not settling for “a body with a pulse and certification.”
    • Micro-timelines: Understanding how much time people are willing to spend reading your message and adjusting the message and expectations accordingly.
  • Message
    • Developing a message that reflects the needs of the target candidates; anticipating and “solving their problem.”
    • Knowing where VI professionals are likely to look for a posting.  The district could have the best possible program and a dynamic message, but if no one sees it the message won’t be effective.

Effective recruitment is about speaking directly to the interests and needs of the candidates.

Knowing your target population

Effective recruitment is all about speaking to the candidate.  In the past, organizations approached recruitment from an institutional perspective. All of the information was about the status and reputation of the school, program, or other organization. Organizational-centric efforts rely on having a constant supply of candidates and no significant competition.  Times have changed. 

Now, successful programs appeal to the candidates themselves, attempting to understand their needs, trying to anticipate and solve their problems.  Stroll down the aisles of a local job fair.  You will see that some booths are focused on the needs of the candidates, and some have pictures of buildings. Educators rarely (if ever) select a district based on buildings.  Out of town candidates want to know about the community in which they will live.  Local candidates want to know about the professional community.

What do we know about VI professionals?

  • 63% had a previous profession.
  • Almost all worked in education and/or a disability-related field.
  • Have an average of 7 years of experience prior to VI work.

In 2003 and 2004, a series of national recruitment studies about VI professionals was completed.  The results provided the best source of information about VI professionals.  This information is useful to learn more about future VI professionals. (Dignan, 2003-2004 Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired quarterly newsletters).

Why do VI professionals like their jobs or field? What draws them to this field?

VI professionals:

  •   like teaching, but want a nontraditional setting or population;
  •   find the job intellectually stimulating;
  •   value working in a helping profession, and want to “make a difference;”
  •   had access to a training program.

What keeps VI professionals in their jobs?

  •   Having an impact on someone’s life
  •   Having access to meaningful professional development
  •   Collaborating and networking with VI professionals and others
  •   Working in a professional discipline with highly skilled professionals

What retention factors have VI professionals identified about their job?

  • Knowing the factors that help retain VI professionals is also helpful when recruiting 
  • Administrative support, and/or having administrators who understand itinerant and/or VI issues
  • Access to appropriate professional development following certification
  • Manageable caseloads

What do successful districts do for recruitment?

People first move to the community, and then they take the job.

Highlighting your community (professional or living) is the first priority.

Always.

  • Understand that recruitment can take time, and may have costs attached, but those costs need not be a deterrent to recruitment
  • Maximize face-to-face recruitment
  • Use mentors or guides to help candidates through the application process when encouraging an existing educator to become VI certified.  According to some sources, 50–75% of all interested potential applicants are dissuaded in the application process (M. Holt, 2007, personal conversation)
  • Collaborate with other organizations and programs

Who is the competition?

Understanding your competition is valuable when considering how to recruit VI professionals.  One key factor in recruiting is distinguishing your district or program from other districts or programs. What sets yours apart?  What makes yours a better “fit” for a candidate?

The competition includes the adjacent school districts.  Remember, VI professionals are itinerant.  They are used to “driving down the road.” Driving to a better job is less of a barrier for VI professionals than it is for some other educators.

Many VI professionals are recruited and trained while working for a district. In this scenario, the competition also includes other areas for professional development and certification areas. Competition may also include your potential VI professional deciding to stay in his or her current job.

Successful recruiters meet the competition head-on.  They show how their district or program is a better fit for the candidate.

How can I use this information?

Knowledge of the target candidates, the community, and the program, as well as being able to reflect on the competition, will enable you to develop a message to appeal to the candidate.

For example, you know that VI professionals:

  • are attracted by the nontraditional nature of the job,
  • work in a profession or field that celebrates problem solving,
  • have approximately 7 years of professional experience, and
  • want to have a long-term impact on their students.

This will help you identify a potential candidate from your district.  You could look for an existing educator or therapist who may be ready for a change, which shows signs of wanting to get out of the classroom, but still loves to work with kids.  Your message to that person could be, “Don’t got out of education, get out of the classroom.” 

Finally, in addition to knowing about the possible pool of candidates, you must promote your community.  An important part of that promotion is being able to articulate what is unique and positive about your community, including the district/program and professional community.

How does time affect my recruiting cycle?

Do NOT Rely on Your Job Vacancy Notice (JVN) to Do Your Recruiting!

JVNs will provide

  • critical and necessary information within a legally sanctioned framework.

JVNs won’t provide

  • why she or he should come to YOUR district and not another one.

A locally developed recruitment flyer is a better tool to deliver your message.

Many administrators start looking for new professionals either late in the spring or early in the fall, trying to fill expected or unexpected vacancies.  Certainly that is important, but not the only consideration.  In addition, there are micro-timelines and macro-timelines.

What is a micro-timeline?

A micro-timeline is the amount of time you have when delivering your initial recruitment message.  It might be a printed document or a verbal message.  Every day we are besieged with information that competes for our attention.  We can only attend to a minute portion of the information that bombards us each day.

Consider the following:

  • Marketing specialists tells us that in a printed document, you have 3–7 seconds to inspire your candidates to move to your district. Use your time wisely.
  • Your reputation precedes you!  Specialized educators (VI or otherwise) are as likely to network with their peers beyond your district as they are to network within the district. 
  • Knowing your desired candidates and what they want to know about your program will greatly increase the impact of your time and money.
  • When you reflect on timelines for your message, design considerations become an issue.  It is NOT necessary to be a graphic designer to produce attractive and effective flyers and brochures.  However, understanding a few basics will be desired.  The Recruitment - Make a Flyer page is a workbook with information about micro-timelines and ideas to help you with design ideas.  

What are macro-timelines?

Recruitment takes time.  The people you want to ultimately hire are competent, successful professionals, whether they are currently employed as a VI professional or yet-to-be-trained.  You are asking them to change their careers.  This is a big decision, especially for mid-career professionals.  It is a decision that takes time to make.  After all, you are asking someone to go from a state of competence and confidence, to a state of unknowing.  This is a big change, especially for highly competent mid-career professionals, the ones you want to attract.

There are several phases that people need to go through to complete the decision-making process.  For some, it takes a weekend.  For others, the idea of becoming a VI professional simmers in the back of their head for a few years, never quite leaving it, but not quite making a commitment.  Others may come to the decision slowly, over time, with lots of persuasion.  Below is a chart representing the various phases, and the time that may be needed.  Some people are able to make the change very quickly.  Others need more time.

Consideration

Up to 2 years

Learns about VI

Decides to make a change

leads to

Action

Up to 18 months

Actively explores options

Enrolls in program

commits to

Training

12 to 24 months

Take courses

Receives certification

leads to

Mature VI professional

Typically 3 years

Is familiar with practices and procedures

Refines consulting skills and able to research new resources independently

Embedded within this process are places where the success can be side-tracked.

IssuePossible solution
People not having information about how to learn more about VI professions Make information available in an array of settings and an array of formats over time.
Concerns about funding for training Many training programs either have access to funds or know about possible options.  Hopefully, this will not be a difficult problem.  If the candidate is self-funding, the district may be able to provide other supports, such as purchasing the books for a professional library in the district, or providing role release time.
Difficulty completing applications for a district’s VI program and university This can be a big change, and scary.  Also, university applications can be complicated.  Your candidate may repeatedly delay completing the application due to feeling overwhelmed.  Assigning someone to “mentor” the candidate through this process can have a huge impact.  The mentor may only need 2 hours to make a difference. 
Not having up-to-date information about timelines or requirements The “mentor” (or “guide”) can also steer the candidate toward sources for current, accurate information.
Feeling overwhelmed and isolated as the candidate moves into a new profession Assigning a formal or informal mentor can help the protégé feel more connected and move through the career transition process with more confidence.

Developing and delivering a message

Information about jobs and careers are delivered in two formats: formal and informal.  Formal methods include legal documents, such as a job vacancy notice (JVN).  Informal methods include flyers, brochures, and conversations with district professionals.  This section will focus on informal communications.  In this case, “informal” shouldn’t imply less consideration or development.  In fact, to be effective and candidate-oriented, more thought may be needed than is common in a JVN.

Effective recruitment depends on giving candidates the information they want in a way they can hear it.  The message must also inspire them to action.  This is especially important if you are:

  • looking for specialized personnel, such as VI or special education, or
  • working in a district with “challenges,” such as being very rural or very urban, or is in transition, or possibly repairing a challenging reputation.

In these cases, it is important to maximize your efforts.  If you don’t, the competition will. 

It is critical to understand not only the positives, but also the frustrations commonly experienced by VI professionals.  Knowing the types of information desired by VI professionals will help you develop your message accordingly.  For example, you can include information about your commitment to reasonable caseload size and having a positive effect on student’s lives, two areas of concern to VI professionals.  You may also be asked about information related to professional development opportunities.

What’s unique about my program?

“Community” may refer to the place where you live or the professional community. New employees will want to know about where they will be living. Existing employees will want to know about the professional community, which may extend beyond the district. Either way, promoting the community is critical.

When developing a message, whether it is a flyer, brochure or a conversation, it is important to know what is unique about your community, district, and/or program.  Understanding and being able to articulate (in print or speech) what you have to offer will help your program stand out from the rest. 

When reflecting on unique features, consider the old recruitment adage: “People move to the community, and take the job.”  Your candidates may or may not be moving to your (home) community, but they will be concerned about their professional community. Factors that are continuously listed as important for all job seekers are:

  • Community (professional or home)
  • Salary*
  • Program*

* People who are switching in mid-career may be more concerned about the program.  New or young educators tend to be more concerned about salary.  ALL are concerned about the community.

While various lists on this topic vary slightly, it is important to note that factors related to effective teams and administration often rank above money or benefits.  Those items with an asterisk (*) are areas that administrators can have an effect on, if not completely manage. 

Special education administrators may not be able to have a direct impact on salary or benefits, but as part of the administrative team they can be powerful voices for strong salary, stipends, and benefits.

Factors cited as important for all educators, including VI professionals, consist of:

  • Enjoy what they do
  • Opportunity to use skills*
  • Opportunity for relevant professional development*
  • Feeling what they do matters*
  • Working in teams*
  • Recognition for good performance*
  • Collegial workplace or friendly co-workers*
  • Location
  • Money*
  • Benefits*

How or where can I find a VI professional?

It can be notoriously difficult to find VI professionals, especially for those on the extreme ends of the urban/rural and/or caseload-size continuums.  In general, districts have three options. They can:

  • reassign an existing certified VI professional who is currently not working as a VI professional,
  • train an existing educator currently employed in their district, and/or
  • recruit from outside the district and/or state.

Reassigning an existing VI professional

It is surprising how many VI professionals are working in districts, but not in a VI capacity.  There are many reasons why this can happen.  For example:

  • There wasn’t a need for the VI professional when she or he joined the district.
  • The educator was trained as a VI professional since joining the district without informing the district.
  • The information wasn’t included on the application when the educator applied to the district.
  • The educator had a VI certification, but it has lapsed.

An additional scenario is that the VI educator opted out of performing VI services.  One of the most frequent causes of leaving the field is lack of understanding between administrators and VI professionals. This Toolbox will assist both parties to develop strong partnerships.

The certification office either for the state or in the district should be able to provide data on which educators have a certificate to educate students with visual impairments. 

Growing your own VI professionals is a tested and effective recruitment method. Look for candidates who excel in

  • Communication,
  • Problem solving,
  • Diagnostic tasks and report-writing,
  • Time-management,
  • Self-starting,
  • Working with team member, and
  • Technology (or have an aptitude for it).

O&M specialists are certified by either the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Educational Professionals (ACVREP) or the National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB).  By contacting their Web site you will be able to view a list of existing certified orientation and mobility specialists in your state (http://www.acvrep.org/directory.php or http://www.nbpcb.org/pages/nomc_lookup.php).

Training an existing educator or “growing your own”

In the “grow your own” model, the district identifies an existing educator (or paraprofessional) and assists that person to be trained as a VI professional.  This model has several distinct advantages.  Typically, the candidate:

  • is a known individual, with a known track record;
  • has strong links to the community, and therefore is less likely to move;
  • feels supported and is likely to complete the training program; and
  • may be able to use the district for any practicum portions required for certification.

Disadvantages also exist:

  • It will take time to get the candidate trained.  Depending on availability of a probationary certification, you may not have access to a VI teacher during that training period.   Your certification agency will be able to provide more information. 

Since there is no interim (probationary or emergency) certification for O&M specialists, you will need to wait for that person to complete the entire program. 

  • The candidate may need some release time for a portion of the training.  As a result, the district may be without the services of that VI professional for a period of time.  It could be an early dismissal on the day of a class or for several days during a course or a training program.

Since your candidate is likely to stay in the district and to remain a VI professional, it is important that you survey the existing educators carefully.  The following characteristics have been identified as desirable in a VI professional:

  • Good problem solver
  • Interested in working as an itinerant professional
  • Excellent diagnostic and report-writing skills
  • Proven track record as a self-starter
  • Competent in technology, since assistive technology can be a significant part of the job
  • Satisfactory time-management skills
  • Excellent team member
  • Effective consultation/communication skills

Whether recruiting from within (“growing your own”) or recruiting from outside of the district, the most important factor is having a solid message that meets the needs of the (future) VI professional.

Recruiting from another district or state

When looking for a VI professional, it is important to cast a wide net.

  • Post information where VI professionals are likely to see them, for example, at professional meetings, or university programs that have VI programs.
  • Don’t limit your advertising to local sources.  Include information on state and national recruitment Web sites, especially those dedicated to connecting VI professionals with jobs. VI professionals may not frequent more traditional posting sites, such as those hosted by administrative associations.  VI professionals may visit the following:
  • Don’t rely on the JVN.  Remember to sell the community!  You can either include a copy of the JVN or count on the fact that if people are interested, they will get more information.  Remember: People move to the community before they take the job.
  • Sole reliance on traditional sources—sources that are standard for general classroom educators—may not be effective.  Don’t omit them, but don’t rely on them either.  Consider using that resource to recruit an existing educator into the VI field.
  • Use university training programs as a source for new VI professionals.  Many programs and career services offices will have a venue to help graduating students to find jobs.  There is a listing of VI training programs on the TSBVI Web site (http://www.tsbvi.edu/pds/498-college-and-university-programs).

Summary

Understanding the basics of proactive, candidate-oriented recruitment can help you meet the needs of your program and avoid long gaps in VI services.  To make the most of your time and money it is important to:

  • know about what is important to current and future VI professionals,
  • understand and use time to everyone’s best advantage, and
  • have a compelling message to meet the candidate’s needs.

No one can expect special education administrators to be recruiting experts, but with a bit of thought, and judicious use of clip or photographic art, everyone can be more effective.