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OPINION: Florida troops can’t fight mass burnout but systemic change can

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ strategy of throwing money and the military at Florida’s understaffed education and corrections industries will only continue the cycle of high turnover rates. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/WASHINGTON TIMES

In response to the corrections officer shortage that has resulted in the closure of 176 inmate dorms, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order on Friday that deploys the Florida National Guard to state prisons.

This decision falls in line with DeSantis’ Aug. 17 SB 896 which allows military veterans to teach in classrooms before earning a bachelor’s degree. This was proposed in response to a state teacher shortage, with Florida experiencing 8,000 vacancies in the upcoming school year, according to the Florida Education Association.

Florida’s staffing shortages are not an enemy DeSantis can overcome by deploying the troops. Unfortunately for him, the resolution of these issues will come from making meaningful, structural changes to these state industries.

DeSantis said the national guard is a short-term patch to fill vacancies in the prison system while waiting for the state worker incentive package to take effect this year, but the governor plans on keeping the National Guard in prisons for nine months. 

In the same vein, the teaching certificate a veteran with a high school education would receive would only last for five years. Long enough, in theory, for the veteran to receive their long-term teaching license. Both of these policies underestimate how quickly damage can be done.

The Florida National Guard is trained for deployment in the case of emergency situations like natural disasters, search and rescue operations and riots. Florida Correctional Officers are trained to provide “care, custody and supervision for incarcerated individuals,” according to EFSC’s accredited course.

While both serve as law enforcement entities, one is trained to react and the other is trained to maintain. They serve different needs and placing high-pressure troops in close quarters with inmates they’re not specifically trained to handle could be explosive.

In this same way, granting veterans five years to teach without having earned anything above a high school diploma will degrade Florida’s public education system. Instead, DeSantis should be romancing highly qualified individuals into both the education and correctional systems.

The aforementioned state worker incentive package will pull some of that weight by boosting state employee wages by 5.4% across the board, increasing the minimum wage for state employees to $15 per hour and adding additional incentives for state agencies that struggle with high turnover rates, the department of corrections being one of them.

While a pay increase is a great step to incentivize workers, there are stressors beyond just pay that result in high turnover rates and less qualified hires.

A 2021 study by Rand regarding teacher stress and a 2021 Cambridge study on correctional officers, strangely enough, come to the same conclusion. They are high-stress jobs with little-to-no resources for stress management.

While DeSantis’ pay bump for state employees may result in an influx of job-seekers, once teachers and corrections officers alike face duress with no outlet, they are increasingly likely to face depression and burnout. The high turnover rates that have plagued these industries for ages will continue unless structural changes are made that end the cycle of burnout.

Instead of deploying troops and throwing money at Florida’s staffing shortage, leadership is going to have to undertake the not-so-flashy process of thoughtful change.