Australia is experiencing a widespread workforce shortage. However, the workforce crisis in early education and care must be addressed as a priority. A strong and stable ECEC workforce enables parents and carers to work and train and ensures children have access to the lifelong benefits of high-quality early education. If early education services’ operational ability is restricted because of workforce shortages, this will restrict economic growth.
It has been almost a year since the National Workforce Strategy 'Shaping Our Future' was released. It was designed to provide a roadmap to ensure a sustainable, high-quality ECEC workforce, but little has been implemented.
The National Skills Commission’s five-year employment projections, which were factored into the Workforce Strategy, showed that growth in the sector would continue to increase over the five years to November 2025, with employment expected to increase by around 16,000 educators (an 11% increase) and 8,000 teachers (a 17% increase).1
The latest job vacancy data from the National Skills Commission shows that early childhood education and care vacancies have doubled since pre-pandemic levels (May 2022 data compared to May 2019). In the past 12 months alone, the data shows that vacancies have grown by 45% to over 6,600.2
We are now faced with snowballing recruitment and retention issues on a much larger scale than what could have been factored into the Workforce Strategy.
Services operating with these vacancies tell a story of unsustainable workload, stress leave, and burnout among staff.3 Added operating requirements because of COVID have increased pressure on educators and leaders. As a result of COVID, the number of children presenting with higher needs has increased dramatically, while services lack the skilled staff to support them.
CELA CEO Michele Carnegie is recommending the following initiatives to the government ahead of the Jobs and Skills Summit:
Retention of existing staff
Early educators must be shown that their work is valued to stop them from leaving our sector. This requires a review of both pay and conditions, which are intrinsically linked.
Any changes to conditions should be in consultation with early educators and aligned to what matters to them. From our consultation with members, we identified the following opportunities to improve conditions:
Allowing suitable time to plan programs.
Arranging for a set number of pupil-free days per year so that education teams can engage in professional development.
Ensuring that professional development plans are prepared for all staff.
Ensuring ratios are contextualised to the community in which services operate—regulated ratios are often insufficient to meet the increasingly higher needs of children in some communities.
We know that implementing better conditions improves staff retention. Many of our members have benefited from implementing Enterprise Agreements that provide pay parity with primary school teachers and include additional leave and planning hours. They operate above ratio and invest in the professional development of leaders, teachers and educators. However, even these services are facing challenges when it comes to replacing staff who have retired or left the service due to external factors.
Retention payments in the form of a wage subsidy need to be considered as an immediate action however, there is little evidence to suggest that people will stay without suitable remuneration and conditions when the incentive ceases. The Swedish 2016 Teacher Salary Boost is an example of where a retention strategy has been successful.4 The initiative was a targeted government grant designed to raise qualified teachers' pay, increase the teaching profession's attractiveness and improve teaching quality. The Teacher Salary Boost contributed to existing primary teachers viewing the profession as more attractive and encouraged many to stay in the profession.
This became a permanent pay increase for three-quarters of the teachers who received the grant. Teachers who benefited from the higher pay were less likely to leave than other teachers.
To implement increased remuneration for our sector successfully, the government must ensure that funded incentives flow entirely to salaries and conditions and in no way increase parent fees.
We see that this longer-term structural reform will be addressed within the proposed Productivity Commission Inquiry scope, which Labor promised to commission if elected.5 Moreover, if Labor follows through on one of its other pre-election pledges (to strengthen the ability of the Fair Work Commission to order pay increases for workers in low-paid, feminised sectors) it is essential for our sector to be amongst the first sectors to benefit.6
Diversification of skills and qualifications
A diversity of skills and qualifications is essential in community-based services. Leaders in community-based services often carry additional operational and administrative roles including HR and finance. Engaging additional expertise would improve workplace conditions for leaders, enabling them to devote the time required to engage with families, mentor staff and guide quality program and practice. In addition, allied health qualifications are desperately needed to meet the increasingly higher needs of children.
Bringing qualified people back to the sector
Many qualified teachers and educators have left because of unsatisfactory pay, conditions and community perception, while others left due to additional operational pressures resulting from the pandemic.
A number of our members recently provided detailed information about their individual workforce challenges in order to further shine a light on what needs to be done, and how that changes depending on factors such as service type and location.
As one educator said in her resignation letter to a council-run service in metropolitan Sydney:
'Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work in this position for the past year and a half. I have thoroughly enjoyed working here and appreciate all of the opportunities you have given me. However, with COVID, a lot of staff and children have been sick and the mental and physical pressure of working with uncertainty have made it extra challenging at times. I feel I need to move away from the sector, so I can focus more on my well-being.'
The case studies showed that incentives and supports need to be available to all types of services that have demonstrated a need to recruit and retain staff, regardless of current pay rates in relation to The Award. They also need to be flexible, to suit the many varied challenges being faced in communities across the state.
There's a large, qualified group of ex-educators out there who are still passionate about the sector and who only left because of an issue they had with pay or conditions. We believe that suitable incentives based on the varied needs of the community would encourage some to return.
Allowing experienced ECT students to be within ratio
Under current regulations, ECT students in their second and third years of study cannot be considered within the services’ ratios. We recommend enabling second-year students to be equivalent to Certificate III qualified educators and third-year students to be equivalent to Diploma qualified educators when considering ratios in ECEC. As a result, students would receive recognition for their progress and be able to work part-time in services while studying and during semester break. This would allow the students to benefit financially and academically, while services would have access to a new pool of educators. (There were 4,288 students commencing an ECT teaching qualification in 2020 who, if still enrolled, could be considered eligible to work at Diploma level under this model.7)
Development of leadership capabilities
Leadership development is essential to suitably support leaders to manage a range of complexities that have emerged during COVID. This leadership development requires mentoring and coaching training, as well as networking opportunities.
Funding peer support networks can enhance retention and encourage the well-being and professionalism of educators by offering a way to come together to solve problems and stay up to date with the latest thinking. The need for professional practice networks was highlighted in the National Workforce Strategy and has been requested numerous times over recent years as a highly effective way to support leaders and educators.
Qualifications, professional development and mentoring
Unfortunately, many students do not finish their qualifications, and of those who do, too many leave the sector within a short time frame. We know that completions for early childhood teaching degrees are declining (completions have dropped from 2620 in 2015 to 2051 in 2020). We also know that dual degrees enabling teachers to teach in either the school sector or early childhood sector can be problematic because most graduates plan to work in the school system rather than the ECEC sector.8 Completion rates for early childhood teaching qualifications have historically been lower than completions for primary and secondary teaching, sitting at 41% compared to 53%.9 In addition, only 43% of graduates go on to work in early childhood education while the remainder go into primary education; this needs to be taken into account.10 These indicators suggest that there are not enough teachers coming through the pipeline to meet ACECQA's previously forecasted need for 8,000 additional early childhood teachers by 2025 (this figure is likely to be understated as it did not take into account the Governments Cheaper Childcare policy, which will require approximately an additional 9,500 workers in the sector on top of existing vacancies).
For educators enrolling in Diploma and Certificate III courses, completions are consistent with other VET qualifications, sitting at around 50%. However, data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research shows that there were 11,880 Certificate III and 9890 Diploma completions in 2020.11 It is a high number but clearly not enough to meet demand.
For new educators, mentoring is essential in helping them build their skills in delivering quality programs contextualised to the community in which they work. In addition, mentoring has been linked to the development of a professional identity that increases commitment to the profession.12
Staff shortages have resulted in limited time for peers to provide adequate support for students working within services, limiting students' progress and educational achievement. Mentoring is essential for professional growth and retention.
It is vital that more attention be paid to the quality of RTOs. Moreover, RTOs that fail to develop sector-ready workers should not continue to receive funding. Funding should instead be targeted towards courses that provide strong outcomes for their students, as well as sector linkages.
Government-funded micro credentials could be an effective pathway to supporting educator and teacher growth and progression. Micro credentials are 'small, certification-style courses that focus on a particular area of study to hone proficiency over the shortest possible time’ (RMIT, 2020). Topics can be aligned to teacher and educator interests and to the context of the community in which they work. Universities and industry associations have started offering micro credentials over recent years across various sectors. CELA has invested in developing micro credentials to support teachers and educators to develop their expertise in specialised sector topics. CELA will be launching its first micro credential in September this year.
We are missing out on vital workers because of system inefficiencies in relation to skilled migration.
The Business Council of Australia (BCA) recently released a ‘checklist of quick wins’ that could ‘take the handbrake off growth’.13 This included ‘getting people into the country by expediting visa processing, including through additional resourcing and relaxed eligibility checks based on a risk management approach.’ The BCA also suggests that temporary skill shortage visa holders should be eligible for a 4-year stay with a pathway to permanent residency.
Providing a pathway to permanent residency will position Australia as a more attractive destination for skilled migrants who are weighing up the costs and uncertainty of moving to Australia with their families instead of moving to another country. Permanent residency pathways will help them to plan for the future and build a life here.14
Better utilising the existing potential labour pool
Some residents cannot train to enter the ECEC sector as they are unable to access free training at university or TAFE. Others need language and literacy training before undertaking an ECEC course, but there isn’t a wrap-around funded model for this. Fixing these barriers could create a willing labour pool that is currently not being supported to enter the sector.
Our workforce is in crisis for a variety of reasons. While remuneration is a crucial factor, there needs to be a broad range of strategies applied immediately to tackle the underlying causes.
We have been relentless in our advocacy around workforce in recent years and have taken every opportunity to advocate for improved remuneration and conditions for our sector. Due to our connection with our members and the information you have provided us, we have been able to provide timely updates and suggestions to government throughout recent years.
Recent examples of CELA's workforce-related advocacy:
We consulted our members and the wider sector through pulse check surveys to ensure that your voices are included in what we are putting forward.
We responded to government announcements about key sector initiatives with suggestions on how to solve the workforce crisis.
We worked with our partners ELAA and CCC to develop and promote the 6 Point Plan for Education and Care, which includes many suggestions for improving wages and conditions for early educators.
We responded to the 2022 Federal Budget with a focus on ECEC and workforce and how it aligns with our 6 Point Plan for Education and Care.
We brought members, politicians and the wider sector together to have their say on workforce and other sector issues in our Pre-Election Forum.
We reported on and analysed data from other sector bodies, such as the ACECQA Workforce Strategy
Our suggestions have been presented at regular advisory group meetings and via letters to federal and state ministers. We informed our members of these meetings through our weekly Member News bulletins and Advocacy on the Agenda summary.
In the lead-up to the Jobs and Skills Summit in September, CELA will be advocating to ministers and senators about the workforce shortages impacting our sector and the strategies needed to address them—some short-term and some medium-term. These strategies protect our hard-fought-for National Quality Framework and children's rights to a high-quality, stable, engaged workforce. Don’t forget to check in to our Advocacy on the Agenda summary to find out who we have met with and what we have been advocating.
Browse our library of recent Amplify! articles with a focus on workforce to find out how our advocacy has evolved:
What does universal pre-kindergarten look like in Ontario, and has it been a success? (July 2022)
Workforce challenges: three member case studies (June 2022)
Post election summary (May 2022)
Enough is enough - on IWD we call for urgent change in our sector (March 2022)
What our survey says: The impact of Omicron on long day care (Feb 2022)
The impact of Mandatory Vaccination on our workforce — what you told us and what needs to be implemented to support our sector (Dec 2021)
Increased turnover and a need for targeted funding - new workforce report reveals challenges and solutions (Nov 2021)
Unprecedented challenges - How CELA is advocating for you during the current outbreak (Aug 2021)
The National Quality Framework – our vision for continuous quality improvement (May 2021)
CELA’s 2021-22 budget review – what you need to know and what still needs to be addressed (May 2021)
Solving the workforce crisis requires national action (March 2021)
Workforce: Have your say on the NQF Consultation Regulation Impact Statement Pt 1 (March 2021)
Educating in remote and complex environments – challenges and solutions (Feb 2021)
How our workforce is tracking – CELA workforce survey results (Jan 2021)
Building the rural and regional workforce – what strategies are in place and what can be done now? (Nov 2020)
Why a viable early childhood education system is needed more than ever (May 2020)
International ECEC workforce survey results (Nov 2019)
Building a sustainable workforce (June 2019)
1 ACECQA, (September 2021) 'Shaping our Future: A ten-year strategy to ensure a sustainable, high-quality children’s education and care workforce 2022–2031 https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2021-10/ShapingOurFutureChildrensEducationandCareNationalWorkforceStrategy-September2021.pdf
2 National Skills Commission, https://www.nationalskillscommission.gov.au/
3 ABC News, (11 August 2022) 'Childcare sector reaching crisis point over workforce shortages and low wages', https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-08-10/childcare-early-education-crisis-point-workforce-shortages-wages/101319424
4 Statskontoret, (2021) 'Evaluation of the government grant for the Teachers’ Pay Boost' https://www.statskontoret.se/in-english/publications/2021/evaluation-of-the-government-grant-for-the-teachers-pay-boost.-final-report/ Sweden
5 Australian Labor Party, (2022) 'Australian Women: Labor’s plan for a better future' https://alp-assets.s3.ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/documents/ALP_Aust_Women_Plan_2022.pdf pg6
6 Australian Labor Party, 'Closing the Gender Pay Gap' https://www.alp.org.au/policies/closing-the-gender-pay-gap Accessed 16 August 2022
7 DESE, Higher Education Statistics, (2020) Special Courses data https://www.dese.gov.au/higher-education-statistics/resources/2020-section-8-special-courses
8 ACECQA, (November 2019) 'Progressing a national approach to the early childhood education and care workforce' https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2022-01/ProgressingNationalApproachChildrensEducationCareWorkforce.pdf pg 6
9 ACECQA, (November 2019) 'Progressing a national approach to the early childhood education and care workforce' https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2022-01/ProgressingNationalApproachChildrensEducationCareWorkforce.pdf pg 27
10 ACECQA, (November 2019) 'Progressing a national approach to the early childhood education and care workforce' https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2022-01/ProgressingNationalApproachChildrensEducationCareWorkforce.pdf pg 27
11 NCVER, Total VET Students and Courses, DataBuilder accessed 16 August 2022 https://www.ncver.edu.au/research-and-statistics/publications/all-publications/total-vet-students-and-courses-2020
12 Bretherton, T (2010) 'Developing the Child Care Workforce: Understanding "Fight" or "Flight" Amongst Workers', Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education Research.
13 Business Council of Australia (July 2022), 'BCA releases checklist of 'quick wins' to take the handbrake off growth', https://www.bca.com.au/bca_releases_checklist_of_quick_wins_to_take_the_handbrake_off_growth pg 14
14 Business Council of Australia (July 2022), 'Releasing the handbrakes on growth: common-sense reform wins', https://www.bca.com.au/bca_releases_checklist_of_quick_wins_to_take_the_handbrake_off_growth pg 14