By CELA on 29 Nov, 2021

“The results of this report are sobering, but not surprising,” says CELA CEO Michele Carnegie. “The workforce challenges faced by our sector are not new, but have been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. We are very concerned that if they are not addressed now, there will soon be a shortage of places, children missing out on early education, parents not able to access the level of care they need to work, and increased cost as services cover salaries in a competitive labour market. Our most vulnerable children have the most to gain from early childhood education but are already less likely to attend. Reduced places and potentially less qualified educators may mean less opportunity for these children to receive the education they need to have their best possible start in life.

Australia’s education and care sector is facing serious workforce shortages. There are compounding pressures on the sector including growing demand for places for children, alongside declines in the number of enrolments in educator and teacher qualifications.

ACECQA’s Ten Year Workforce Strategy (Education Services Australia, 2021), grounded in extensive consultations and review of evidence, sets short, medium and long-term goals to address the challenges facing the ECEC workforce. 

Priority actions centre around six key themes: 

  1. Professional recognition
  2. Attraction and retention
  3. Leadership and capability
  4. Educator wellbeing
  5. Qualifications and career pathways
  6. Data and evidence

The strategy recognises that collaboration across governments, service providers, peaks, education and training providers, educators and teachers and representative bodies is required to effect sustainable change. The findings of our joint survey and report support the ACECQA strategy, with a focus on key measures to accelerate the sector’s capacity to attract, develop and retain our vital workforce.

Staff turnover: 

The report revealed that for 50% of respondents, staff turnover increased or greatly increased since the start of the pandemic.

We speculate that 50% of respondents who did not experience higher staff turnover may have been due to additional government funding of preschool services in Victoria, Job Keeper last year, or supportive workplaces with well-established teams.        

“It takes time to build relationships with children and their families. When continuity of care is interrupted because of staff turnover, it is impossible to build this type of relationship. Not only children, but also their families, end up feeling insecure and anxious because of a lack of consistency and continuity of care. As a result, their wellbeing is compromised.” - Survey respondent

Workforce turnover was higher for privately-owned for-profit services, with 58 percent of services with this management type reporting turnover had increased or greatly increased, compared to the average of 49 percent. In Victoria, Local Government authority Early Years Managers had a very high percentage turnover of 70 per cent. The reasons for this are unclear but may be related to the lack of eligibility for JobKeeper, however we note that Local Government authorities had a lower than average turnover. Community operated/not-for-profit providers were slightly lower than the average, with 47 per cent reporting staff turnover had increased or greatly increased.

The largest factors impacting on staff turnover and shortages were lack of access to casual staff and staff leaving the sector.

What has impacted staff turnover? 

The impacts of COVID-19 are significant, with many services highlighting additional sick leave being taken due to mental health/exhaustion and that needing to test and isolate due to COVID19 was exacerbating shortages. With Victoria and New South Wales progressively re-opening, these factors have not diminished. With early childhood education and care set to become the largest sites where unvaccinated people regularly interact, the impact of COVID-19 on ECEC is likely to increase.

Changes to service operations due to staff shortages

Over half of all services have made changes to service delivery to respond to the staff shortages, in addition to reducing quality by dropping back to at ratio delivery, and staff working additional hours.

Type of provision impacted on likelihood of needing to change service delivery due to shortages of staff, with 62.6 percent of long day care respondents saying they had to make changes to service delivery compared with just 50.3 percent of funded 4-year-old preschool.

Although this council is a direct provider of only 2 occasional care services, we work with >20 preschools and LDC services who operate out of council facilities. We are hearing consistently that services are having great difficulty filling Diploma level positions and booking relief staff. Services that very rarely use agencies are now needing to regularly and often the agencies have no staff available. With no relief staff available they are forced to operate on bare minimum ratios which they feel puts pressure on staff present and compromises quality. We know of 2 preschools that have closed and cancelled sessions for a day at very short notice because they have been unable to source a cert III or dip qualified staff member. - Survey respondent

Rural areas have also had to close services due to staff shortages.

Being in a regional-rural area, and being a not-for-profit service, we have had extreme difficulties in finding and retaining great staff over the last year, resulting in several service closures to the great inconvenience of everyone involved with our preschool.  - Survey repondent          

With such high vacancies it is difficult to understand how services have continued to operate. The answer may reside in the fact that many community services usually operate above ratio to meet the needs of their children and community, such as where they have a higher percentage of enrolments of children with additional learning needs, and ensure quality.                        

Sometimes it is only because community owned services choose to staff above ratio, that they have been able to operate on some days when a number of staff have called in sick.  - Survey respondent

Some may have waivers in place and anecdotally we understand that others may delay requesting a waiver due to concerns about compromising their quality rating, a myth which regulators are working to debunk.        
With staff spending more time on the floor, the service impacts are real, with less time available for planning, seeking additional funding or support for children in need, undertaking outreach or community engagement or implementing quality improvements. 

Recruitment and vacancies                

Nearly half of all vacancies remained unfilled in early 2021. Services reported that over 4,500 vacancies (minimum) had been advertised in the first six months of 2021. The most common position advertised was at the certificate III level and the diploma level which each had over 1,400 vacancies advertised. Vacancies for teachers were high at over 700 vacancies.                         

Reasons services gave for being unable to fill vacancies include a lack of applicants, poor quality of training and a lack of cultural fit.                    

We have found that the standard of qualifications and competency of prospective employees has dramatically dropped, for example trained diploma educators who are illiterate, cannot do tasks that are essential for the position e.g. observations, cannot communicate to children in English, or have diploma trained educators applying for an early childhood teacher roles. - Survey respondent

Rural factors are also part of the story. Living in rural and remote communities makes the workforce challenges more acute, with a shortage of qualified education and care staff as well as other staff, such as allied health.

We have found that distance/travel are major issues faced by people working at our service, and some form of travel concession (which budget- wise we are unable to provide) would go a long way in assisting with staff being able to continue with our service. - Survey respondent

Certificate III and diploma qualified educator positions had the greatest number of vacancies at a minimum of more than 680 positions. One of the key issues for services is the quality of available applicants.

CERT III educators are available, however, they have proven to NOT have a reasonable knowledge of developmental stages, general knowledge of the EYLF and have a limited understanding and practice of work ethic and reliability.   - Survey respondent

Given it only takes between 6-12 months to become a qualified certificate III educator it would seem that this demand could be met in a short space of time with the right levers in place.             

It was also observed that unfilled positions take a toll on the residual workforce and ability to provide services. 

We have never before had so much difficulty recruiting educators. We have a good reputation and usually have multiple applicants. Since June last year we have hardly any applicants and our educators are working harder than ever to provide children with consistent high quality care but the strain of not being able to recruit is showing. We are having increased absences for a variety of reason that further impacts on the other educators.  - Survey respondent

The way forward                                            

Finding and retaining staff is a challenge faced by many services. High vacancy rates, despite the prevalence of the use of above award pay to attract staff illustrates the enormous challenge for the sector. However, change is possible. Targeted funding and a commitment to growing the workforce will bear rewards. The ACECQA Workforce Strategy provides a path forward if the strategies it articulates are funded, implemented and findings shared and scaled. Investment is needed at all levels of government, with a coordinated strategy that ensures we invest in, implement and evaluate what works. This includes priority investment in the below strategies.

Recommendation 1: Improve pay and conditions of sector employees

Improving pay and conditions is a priority, and the recently re-negotiated Victorian Early Childhood Teacher and Educators Agreement (VECTEA) with terms and conditions which are significantly more beneficial than the modern awards and many other relevant agreements in the sector shows it is possible to have pay parity. Pay parity with similar level qualifications will ensure the 'return on investment' for completing qualifications stacks up.                    

It is critical that children’s access to education and care is not impacted by improved conditions for staff through increased fees for parents. Investment from government is needed that is tied to wage increases, including the recent Fair Work wage adjustment. Governments should investigate a universal industrial relations instrument that can provide professional wages and conditions to early childhood education and care staff across settings.                        

Recommendation 2: Adapt strategies to attract and retain staff to address sector shortages                    

The shortage of education and care staff is compromising service provision, putting at risk quality learning for children. We need state and national government investment to scale up successful strategies to attract and retain early childhood educators and teachers to the profession including:            

  • Scholarships and targeted training programs, including to build a diverse workforce and address rural and regional shortages;                             
  • Financial incentives programs to take-up positions in hard to staff areas;        
  • Trial government funded retention payments for not-for-profits in critical locations; and    
  • Networks and mentor support. 

Recommendation 3: Improve training                

Partnerships between training providers and services can support improvements in the quality of training and work readiness of graduates. These need to be showcased, with guidance developed on how to build and sustain these partnerships. Further evidence is needed on what a quality placement looks like, and to ensure a feedback mechanism back to training providers and regulators exists where students on placement, or new recruits, do not meet quality standards.    

Recommendation 4: Skilled migration            

Skilled migration has a small but significant role to play. The early childhood education and care workforce needs to be reinstated onto the priority migration skilled occupation list, due to the significant shortages that exceed several other industries on the list. 

“We know COVID-19 has impacted the sector greatly – there is increased exhaustion on top of the need to test and isolate which has led to increasing shortages in an already depleted workforce," says CELA CEO Michele Carnegie. "Without suitable government intervention, we will soon see the result of a competing labour market, with increased staffing costs passed on in higher fees for parents. 

“I’d like to thank the hundreds of CELA members who took the time to respond to the survey and thereby contributed to the development of this report. We will be using the report  to advocate for urgent support for our workforce and the essential work it does in educating and caring for our youngest Australians.”

Note: The report is based on results from a survey that was distributed to CCC, CELA and ELAA members. We received 747 responses which represented over 3300 sites, with the bulk of responses being received from services in Victoria and New South Wales. Survey responses were received from a wide range of services, with most respondents operating kindergarten/preschool or long day care services.

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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