Crisis as workforce shortages bite

Several recent studies indicate Australia’s early childhood sector is at a crisis point, with staff shortages the biggest concern, journalist Sue Osborne writes.

New figures from the federal Department of Education revealing 11 percent of early learning centres need special permission to open due to staffing shortages, highlights the acute workforce crisis in the sector.

A December 2021 search on the Seek website found the number of job vacancies in Australia for early childhood educators was 6999, and for early childhood teachers 7212.

For a workforce of about 150,000 this is an extremely high vacancy rate of 9.5 percent of the total national workforce.

The HESTA 2021 State of the Sector report found early childhood teachers love their job and where they work, yet many are looking to move on, mainly due to the low wages and poor prospects.

Despite being more likely to recommend their employer, nearly half of early childhood education and care (ECEC) professionals wouldn’t advocate pursuing a career in the sector, according to The State of the Sector 2021: Early Childhood Education and Care Workforce Insights report.

Looking at the working experience and attitudes of HESTA members reveals the industry – already facing chronic workforce shortages – faces significant challenges attracting and retaining talent.

Considering leaving

Almost one in five ECEC professionals surveyed said they were considering leaving the industry within two years. Among the biggest issues were dissatisfaction with wages, feeling unappreciated by the community for their role as early educators, and a lack of opportunities for career development,

The research did find positive sentiment across arange of measures related to how ECEC professionalsfelt about their employers, with 87 percent saying theyfelt somewhat or strongly supported by their employers during COVID.

However, this didn’t flow through to a greater willingness to advocate for working in the sector. Although 42 percent of respondents said they’d strongly recommend working for their employer, 43 percent were strong detractors when it came to recommending a career in the industry. Less than a third of respondents said they would strongly recommend a career in the industry.

“This research shows the big gap between how professionals feel about where they work and whether they see a long-term career in the industry,” HESTA CEO Debby Blakey said.

Broad issues

“It’s great to see individual employers stepping up and supporting their employees, but unless the broader issues of low pay, a lack of development opportunities and community perception are addressed, the industry will face a chronic shortage of skilled professionals.”

In a 2019 workforce report on the future of the ECEC workforce, the independent Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) forecast the sector would need 39,000 more educators by 2023 – a 20 percent increase in the workforce.

The impacts of COVID-19 are significant, with many services highlighting that staff are taking sick leave due to mental health and exhaustion, and that the need to test and isolate was exacerbating shortages.

A joint 2021 report, Investing in our Future: Growing the Education and Care Workforce, produced by Community Early Learning Australia, Community Child Care and the Early Learning Association of Australia, makes similar warnings, noting “staff turnover had increased or greatly increased in nearly half of all services since the beginning of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“There were a range of reasons for turnover increasing, predominately a lack of access to casuals causing additional stress, and staff leaving the sector,”the report said.

“The impacts of COVID-19 are significant, with many services highlighting that staff are taking sick leave due to mental health issues and exhaustion, and that the need to test and isolate was exacerbating shortages.

“Reasons services raised around the difficulty with recruitment were mostly about poor pay and conditions contributing to a lack of applicants, as well as the poor quality of graduates.”

The report recommended improved pay and condition, better strategies to attract and retain staff, improved training, and skilled migration to address the shortages.

“ACECQA’s national workforce plan must be funded to ensure there is a stable and well-qualified workforce available to educate and care for our youngest Australians.

“With 50 percent of advertised positions going unfilled, the impacts of a shortage of teachers and educators is already affecting program delivery and participation.”

Low super

The HESTA report also found its members working in ECEC had the lowest median super account balance of any industry cohort, with 74 percent having a median account balance of less than $50,000.

Hit hard by the pandemic, nearly 20 percent of HESTA members working in ECEC also made a claim under the Federal Government’s early release of super (ERS) scheme. This group saw their median account balance fall by an average of 49 percent.

“During the pandemic we saw the critical role our early educators play in supporting our community,” Blakey said.

“We also saw just how precarious their employment and financial situation is. We know from the early release of super, the heartbreaking prevalence of financial hardship among these members and it points to the need to improve the quality and security of jobs in the sector.

“When Australia faced the initial shock of COVID-19, early educators were there to support the push to protect our community. Now is the time to ensure a long-term, sustainably funded, early childhood education sector. But this funding must also look to lift low wages and improve conditions for those who are so vital to delivering these critical services.”

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Key findings (HESTA Report)
  • 47 percent of respondents would strongly recommend their leader or manager.
  • 42 percent would strongly recommend to family and friends working for their employer. This was strongest among younger members (18-29 years of age), with 64 percent recommending working at their employer and 77 percent their employer’s services.
  • 54 percent of respondents would strongly recommend their employers’ services.
  • Top three reasons for staying with an employer were: colleagues and co-workers; employer’s location; and ‘liking the company I work for’.
  • Top three reasons for leaving an employer: developing new skills; trying something different; and not being paid enough.
  • Salary was the most disliked aspect of respondents’ roles, followed by not enough opportunities for career growth.