The early childhood workforce: Do we need to care more for the carers?

23 Nov 2017

Authors: Prof Karen Thorpe and Dr Sally Staton

Evidence from the USA suggests that stressful and increasing work demands alongside incommensurate pay and conditions is taking its toll on ECEC educators. Staff turnover is high, double that of teachers in the school sector; and for those who do stay, stress and depression can diminish quality of interactions and engagement of educators in ongoing professional development. 

Delivery of high quality ECEC programs is predicated on the availability of a trained workforce able to deliver programs responsive to the needs of children and families. The workforce’s wellbeing is equally as important as qualifications for delivering emotionally supportive, socially connecting and intellectually stimulating experiences. How is this playing out in the Australian context where we also see increased demands of accountability and high workloads with untenably low pay?

The Early Years Workforce study seeks to answer this question through funding by the Australian Research Council and support by partnerships between the Queensland University of TechnologyQueensland Department of Education and TrainingGoodstart Early Learning; and the Creche and Kindergarten Association.

Analyses examining staff retention in the ECEC sector have found that 20% intended to leave in the next 12 months. Those intending to leave were more likely to be undertaking training, with those undertaking degrees more likely to seek work in the school sector where pay and conditions are considerably more favourable. Staff members indicating intentions to leave were also more likely to commence their career with high expectations of making a difference to the lives of children, which may reflect unmet expectations or the co-occurrence of women motivated to work with children actually leaving the sector to have their own children, or to move geographically with spouses who are often the higher income earner in a sector where many are paid at the minimum wage.

Those staying were more likely to be older, to have been in their centre longer and be in managerial positions, which reflects the likelihood of commitment among those who have made career progression. Variations in pay and conditions and the characteristics of the broader community in which a centre is located appear to have little impact on the relationship between staff retention, duration of employment and appointment to managerial positions. Rather, good leadership that builds positive work environments within the ECEC service is a predictor of higher likelihood of staying, and qualitative analyses suggests that having a partner with sufficient earnings also supports ongoing engagement in the ECEC sector.

The findings indicate the need to make significant structural changes in pay, conditions and career structure to retain educators in the long term. In the short-term, centres with strong leadership and positive work environments are those most likely to retain their staff and enable them to deliver effective ECEC experiences for children.