Case Study 1: Local council-run services in metropolitan Sydney
This local council operates 14 services which include a variety of different service types, paying above-award wage.
Attracting new educators to fill vacancies last year was already very challenging, and the situation has intensified over the past 6 months. During this time the council have also found it increasingly difficult to cover staff on sick leave, due to the lack of casuals available, and a substantial increase in illness due to COVID, RSV, flu, or caring for sick children.
There was an example last week where we had 9 staff sick on one day at one particular service," the executive manager of children's services tells us. "We are fortunate enough to have a fantastic pool of our own casual staff as the local agencies are usually only able to supply one or two staff members. However, this was not enough on this occasion.
We had some great team members from other centres agree to change centres for the day and the manager of our early learning centres agreed to be on the floor with the children. This meant we did not have to close the doors for the day, but we did have to rearrange children and groups to meet the ratios required. This obviously creates stress on the normal staffing team who are familiar with the children and their needs and routines. It is not providing the high-quality care we aspire to deliver daily. Parents appreciate the service remaining open so they can work and study, but what they really value is seeing the familiar educators who become an extension of their child’s family.
The council’s data shows that the days of sick leave taken by educators over the last 2-3 years has doubled for many reasons (especially when having COVID). The turnover rates have also increased. As one educator said in her recent resignation letter:
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work in this position for the past year and 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 wellbeing.
We have been informed that the council offers above award pay with career progression opportunities, wellness leave, programming time and educational leader allowance. However, the cost of living and housing affordability in the area means that they will need to implement direct and meaningful incentives to bring new educators into the sector and motivate those who have left the sector to return.
"Our desperate need is for some more wonderful Cert III and Diploma educators. With many TAFE/RTO services not having current cohorts of students, the workforce crisis only continues to grow.
"The tide of change and commitment of the NSW Government has shone a new light on our sector like never before — it is so refreshing to see politicians see the amazing work our profession has on shaping children’s lives and long-term benefits. What we need right now are financial incentives to entice educators back who have left the sector and meaningful remuneration support to offer the salaries our educators deserve."
Case study 2: Regional community preschool and long day care on the NSW south coast
This Excellent rated community preschool and long day care centre is licensed for 40 children aged between 6 weeks to 6 years and pays above award wage, while offering excellent work conditions.
The director believes that staffing has ‘reached a crisis point’. There are many factors converging in her service which include the housing crisis, low wages, educators finding other professions after leaving the sector because of the vaccine mandate, and people enjoying their renewed ability to travel.
We have increased wages to above award conditions and have in place an Independent Work Agreement for our teachers, but this has meant we have had to increase fees for our families. We have offered to pay course fees and support people within the community to attain their tertiary early childhood teaching qualifications, Diploma and/or Cert III. Several people have considered this offer but baulked when they examined the wages and conditions in comparision to some other jobs on offer.
The director believes that TAFE and University funding and support is desperately needed, and that funding cuts have led to a reduction in the quality and pedagogical knowledge of graduates who have been undertaking substandard courses. In addition to that, the housing crisis needs an immediate solution.
"Our communities will not be able to function if our early childhood educators and other low income workers that are vital cannot afford to live here. The government's investment in early education is to be commended, however incentives such as higher education scholarships, VET scholarships and streamlined pathways do not really address conditions and pay disparities for preschool staff.
"NSW early childhood teachers can earn up to 20 per cent less than those in schools. How can we have teachers earning significantly less if they teach four-year-olds than five-year-olds? There is no incentive for new teachers to enter the system when the starting wage is so disparate and remains so throughout their careers. Diploma and certificate III staff are on one of the lowest-paid awards. With increasing costs of living and escalating issues with affordable housing, we have some staff who are having to make drastic choices such as choosing between purchasing food or medication as they cannot afford both."
Case study 3: Regional preschool on the NSW northern rivers
This Meeting rated long day care centre is licensed for 76 children aged between 6 weeks to 6 years and pays award wage.
The director has been trying to recruit for several positions since last October and has subsequently had to close one of their nursery rooms due to a lack of staff. At the end of August, two educators who currently work in the remaining nursery room will go on maternity leave, and unless they are able to recruit before then, the director is concerned that the second nursery room will also have to close.
The reasons for the service’s staffing challenges are varied, and include low pay, chronic illness, retirement, relocation, the housing crisis, and moving to work in local preschools that offer more holidays.
We are not able to support planning and programming, or educational leader release,” she says. “When we do not enough staff and cannot meet staff to child ratio, like today, we close a room. Today I have five staff away sick and could only replace two of them. Our preschool room is closed today.
In relation to the solutions put forward in the new ‘Investing in our Workforce’ initiative, the director said: “We need staff now. These initiatives may help in the long term not in the short term.”
A common denominator in all three case studies is that regardless of whether the service is paying on or above award, the inability to attract and retain staff has snowballed to the point where the lack of staff is affecting the ability of existing staff to do their job, as well as compromising the ability of services to stay open.
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.
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