Laid off Workers Head Back to School--to Teach

When Lina Bilimoria lost her IT job at a London asset-management firm in January, she decided to shift gears entirely. "I had been disillusioned for a long time with my job, and I wanted to do something where I felt like I could make a difference," says the mother of two. She had never considered teaching before—until a placement agency sent her to a teacher-information session. Then, says Bilimoria, something just clicked. But when she set out to enroll in a teacher-training course, she found them all booked until 2010. Now Bilimoria plans to spend the next 18 months volunteering in classrooms to help prepare her for a career as a primary-school teacher. "My kids have said to me, 'Hey, that teacher used to work as a trader!' It excites them and makes what they're being taught more real," she says. "Having teachers who worked in other industries shows them that education is useful and relevant."

The waiting lists for London's teacher-training spots are filled with exiles from the business and finance sector. In fact, demand for teacher training is so great that earlier this month the British government announced possible plans to shorten the qualification course for those with work experience from a year to six months. According to recent statistics from the Training and Development Agency for Schools for England and Wales, since the credit crunch began, the number of inquiries about teaching has increased by 45 percent, and the number of people over 25 looking to retrain as teachers has risen 5 percent since last year. Their desired fields reflect their backgrounds: the British educational publisher TSL Education found that applicants to teach math have increased by 25 percent since last year, while those seeking to teach business studies have jumped 64 percent.

The situation is similar in the U.S. Marie Donovan, of DePaul University's School of Education, has seen a spike in interest from older applicants transitioning from careers in finance, marketing and the tech industry. "You have people losing their jobs, and they have this notion that 'Oh, education is a sure bet'," she says. Thomas Rock, director of admissions at Columbia University's Teachers College, also sees a silver lining to the economic crisis. "I'm getting calls from Wall Streeters, from people in the finance market who think they want to be teachers," he says. "We, as an institution, love career changers [because] they add so much to the classroom."

They're also filling a looming need. In the U.S., an average of 102,000 teachers will need to be replaced every year until 2016, according to projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And an estimated 2 million of the 6.25 million teachers across the EU are expected to retire in the next 10 to 15 years, says Paul Holdsworth of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Education and Culture. "It seems kind of ghoulish to say, [but] why not take advantage of this situation and replace retiring teachers with really topnotch graduates and people who have experience in another industry?" he says.

People have historically been drawn to teaching during hard times because the profession offers stability, good benefits and job satisfaction. According to a 2003 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, teacher supply rose and fell in direct correlation to the economy in Britain and the U.S. between 1960 and 2000. "It may be stronger or weaker in some downturns, but overall we have seen this relationship between unemployment, relative wages and people's willingness to go into education," says Peter Dolton, a coauthor of the report. In more developed countries—excluding nations like France and Germany, where teachers are part of the civil service—there is a tendency toward teacher shortages during economic booms because there are more diverse and lucrative job opportunities available, says the OECD's Paulo Santiago. "In countries like Sweden, Britain and Belgium, which periodically suffer from teacher shortages, things get better once there is an economic downturn," he says.

For Cathy Bryan, becoming a teacher turned out to be the best career choice she has ever made. After being laid off from her job as a strategy director at Excite UK, an Internet company, she took some time off to trek through the Annapurnas in Nepal in 2001. "I would be walking along [mountain paths] and try to picture myself teaching," she says. "I just kept coming back to it." When she returned to Britain, she began a 10-month hands-on course to qualify as a secondary-school teacher. Now 38, Bryan teaches citizenship at Eltham Hill Technology College for Girls in London. "I am never, ever bored because as an [educator] I have to be a planner, a strategist, a counselor, a humanitarian and an intellectual," she says. And, increasingly, a mentor to new colleagues arriving from other fields.