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Building a sustainable workforce

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Ahead of both the NSW and Federal elections this year, the need for serious government commitment to sustainable workforce strategies was raised time and again. At the national level some parties, but not all, responded with detailed policy positions.  The Liberal party, which was silent on workforce policy, has now been returned to government so the questions the sector asked ahead of the May election remain largely unanswered. While we wait for the Australian Government to respond, we can look for clues in their position on related topics – such as the Senate Red Tape Inquiry – and consider the progress being made by state governments, which bring their influence to national policy through the COAG Education Council.

In this post, we share elements of the substantial workforce analysis prepared by CELA’s Policy and Research Consultant Megan O’Connell for CELA’s Broadside bulletin. Amplify editor Bec Lloyd provided additional material on some current workforce policy positions.

What might have been…

Without spending too long looking backwards, the ECE workforce policy presented by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) ahead of the Federal election this year might be considered a high water mark for professional support to this sector. Of particular relevance was the commitment to lift educator wages by 20% over the next eight years, on top of any award wage gains through the Fair Work Commission.

The response from Education Minister Dan Tehan was to call the plan ‘economic vandalism’. This position was backed by Minister Tehan’s representative at the ECE Election Forum, Senator Patterson, who told the audience that the LNP did not support Labor’s ‘radical’ approach to ‘tax some Australians who work in private businesses in order to subsidise the wages of other Australians who work in private businesses”.

In fact, the ALP plan relied on achieving significant savings through its taxation plan, but as they weren’t elected their capacity to deliver on the promise will not be tested.  What we can say for certain is that the current Australian Government has no interest in subsidising early childhood educators’ salaries.

State of the ECE workforce

According to Megan O’Connell’s analysis for CELA, this sector’s workforce demand is about to hit a new high. She explains the current situation in this extract:

We are not training enough teachers to replace those leaving the workforce currently, let alone for an additional year of preschool. Within five years one in three teacher vacancies will remain unfilled unless early action is taken to retain and upskill the current ECEC workforce. This requires an urgent commitment to improving pay and conditions for ECEC educators and teachers.

Attrition is a major issue in the early childhood education and care sector. The average years of ECEC experience for ECEC qualified staff is just 7.4 years, and the median age around 34 years. This median age has stayed the same for six years, meaning there has been no overall ageing of the workforce due to attrition rates remaining high. Around 80% of the workforce turns over every 6 years.

The bulk of the 200,000 strong workforce is diploma (34%) or certificate (38%) qualified, with a small number of staff, around one in eight, bachelor qualified. The workforce has nearly doubled since 2010.

[Editor’s note: national workforce surveys showed a total national increase from 108,521 in 2010 to 194,994 in 2016]

As Megan’s analysis explains, we are looking at a booming employment sector which – generally speaking – cannot hold onto the staff it needs, nor attract the even greater number it will soon require. How many more? Double again the current number. The Australian Job Outlook estimates more than 220,000 additional early childhood teachers and educators will be needed over the next five years. These aren’t all new positions, although some demand does result from ongoing employment growth. No: a substantial number of the 220,000 educators who need to be hired in the next five years will simply replace other educators who we know will leave the sector.

Why do they go? Every survey, study industrial hearing, and exit interview points towards poor pay and conditions – particularly compared to school education – as the two key reasons this sector struggles so much to attract and, especially, retain qualified educators.

State policies and reviews

The Commonwealth might be mute on this issue (more on that shortly) but several states are actively pursuing workforce strategies and supporting targeted professional development programs for the sector. The question in those cases is whether they are doing enough, for the right parts of the sector, and with a sufficiently long term view to generate sustainability.

Examples include:

New South Wales

The NSW Early Childhood Workforce Strategy is the result of extensive research and consultation in the sector and is one of the newest strategies in place around Australia.

Under the positives, the strategy recognises the sector as an integral part of a child’s ‘education journey’ and accepts some government responsibility in supporting retention of staff and managing high staff turnover in a quality education framework.

As negatives, observers point to the strategy’s short timespan – only four years (2018-2022) – and lack of commitment to the kind of funding required to roll out effective professional development programs across a geographically and culturally diverse workforce. In particular, the special issues faced by rural and remote services are felt to be not adequately managed in this plan.

The Workforce Strategy prioritises four key focus areas. These are:
1. Promote the early childhood sector to the public as a critical part of a child’s educational journey, and as an attractive field to build a career for prospective educators
2. Support the workforce to obtain qualifications and experience to prepare them for the workplace
3. Build the skills base of the workforce by supporting educators and teachers to attend professional development and update their qualifications and skills
4. Support services to retain educators and teachers, embed sustainable business practices and manage the challenges of staff turnover

Source: NSW Early Childhood Workforce Strategy

Victoria

With something of a headstart on rolling out two years of preschool, Victoria is also active in both professional development and recruiting people into the sector through scholarships and other incentives.  Some of the Victorian programs are described here.

Queensland

Queensland’s Workforce Action Plan 2016–2019  aims to “enhance the capacity of Queensland’s early childhood workforce through a number of initiatives”.  Due now for its next iteration, the plan’s final review has recently been out for consultation ahead of completion.

Like the NSW strategy, the Queensland plan acknowledges the need for educators to feel valued with professional respect – a related concern to the lack of ‘professional pay’.

The Queensland plan also embeds government responsibility for professional development to build capacity:

Ongoing access to high quality professional development is also needed for educators to develop and maintain the skills they need to respond to the complex needs of children and families and the changing responsibilities of their roles. Building workforce capability in leadership and working with children with complex needs were identified in the review as two key priorities for skills development across the sector.

Source: Queensland Workforce Action Plan

An investment or red tape?

There are two ‘sleeper’ factors that may be contributing to the Australian Government’s mute position on supporting workforce development.

The first is the Australian Senate’s efficiency inquiry, which had a sub-committee report devoted to ‘red tape in childcare’.  The committee, led in 2018 by former Senator David Leyonhjelm, had the following terms of reference:

As part of its inquiry into the effect of red tape on the economy and community, the committee will examine the effect of red tape on childcare, in particular:

  1. the effects on compliance costs (in hours and money), economic output, employment and government revenue;
  2. any specific areas of red tape that are particularly burdensome, complex, redundant or duplicated across jurisdictions;
  3. the impact on health, safety and economic opportunity, particularly for the low-skilled and disadvantaged;
  4. the effectiveness of the Abbott, Turnbull and previous governments’ efforts to reduce red tape;
  5. alternative institutional arrangements to reduce red tape, including providing subsidies or tax concessions to businesses to achieve outcomes currently achieved through regulation;
  6. how different jurisdictions in Australia and internationally have attempted to reduce red tape; and
  7. any related matters.

However, in the Interim Report recommendations – to be found here – many findings focus on educators’ qualifications and conditions (such as ratios) as ‘red tape’ and requiring review.

These recommendations include two which demand an evidence base linking qualifications with quality care (a result of the committee querying the cost of providing qualified staff in current ratios) as well as:

2.33 … reviewing the principles of the National Quality Framework [to] recognise that formal qualifications are not the only prerequisite for the provision of high quality child care, as this can also be provided by parents.

 The second ‘sleeper’ is the Australian Government’s known reluctance to endorse the National Partnership Agreement on the NQF past its current expiry in 2020. With the NQF under review, and a Senate report attacking workforce quality initiatives like qualifications and ratios in its hand, the Commonwealth needs to hear clearly from the sector about what it really wants to see happening in workforce matters.

Building solutions

We conclude with Megan’s analysis to look at the big picture solutions required to support a sustainable, high quality early childhood education workforce. She points to the pressing need for a National Workforce Strategy, and the economic argument to be made by all levels of government – state and federal – to turn back the turnover in this sector and retain and train great educators in large number:

A key solution to the impending workforce shortage is to retain educators and teachers within the early childhood education sector. A National Workforce Strategy is needed – to examine and address issues of pipeline and focus on pay and conditions, including salary and access to supported professional development.

The constant churn of students through four year degrees and into and out of early childhood education, often within
a decade, is costly to the government and the individual. Educators switch to school teaching given the higher salary, or leave the workforce altogether. More needs to be done to retain early childhood educators – this is the key to offsetting the future shortfall and delivering on the promise of two years of preschool in the near future.

Pay and conditions for early childhood teachers and educators must be made congruent with the work undertaken in other like professions. A range of studies have been conducted highlighting the centrality of issues such as hours and salary to workforce retention within the early childhood sector. A recent Australian study found that 1 in 5 educators plan to leave their job within twelve months due to the “extreme financial hardship” staying in the sector entails, whilst educators that stay in the sector are reliant on household members subsidising their salary.

Upskilling the existing workforce is also essential – there is a large labour pool of educators that could be upskilled with the right incentives. If just 1% of educators upskilled to bachelor level this could fill the impending teachers shortfall. However, low pay, long hours and a lack of recognition inhibits educators from upskilling, and staying in early childhood education if they do upskill.

It is essential that all children have access to consistent, highly trained educators and teachers. If urgent attention is not committed, disadvantaged children and children in rural and regional areas, will fall behind as trained ECEC teachers become scarce within five years.

The incoming government must focus on building the ECEC workforce as a key priority to ensure all children can thrive.

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