Our sector is facing a staffing crisis - there's no better way to put it. Services are sharing with us, their sense of overwhelm and frustration as they struggle to find qualified, experienced professionals to fill the almost (at the time of writing, via seek.com.au) 4000 positions in the early education and care sector.
Our sector is facing a staffing crisis - there's no better way to put it. Services are sharing with us, their sense of overwhelm and frustration as they struggle to find qualified, experienced professionals to fill the almost (at the time of writing, via seek.com.au) 4000 positions in the early education and care sector. And it's not just the Approved Providers and Nominated Supervisors who are burdened by this, educators are working additional hours, not always getting the breaks that they need, and are taking on additional physical and emotional workload.
So, how did we get here? How did we get to a place where instead of having to cull a pool of 45 applicants for a position, we are finding it difficult to get applicants?
There is no doubt that the pandemic has impacted our sector. Educators have left due to increased health concerns, overwhelm, and even as a result of vaccine mandates. But, it would be naïve to think that this lack of educators is only a result of the pandemic - we were spiralling into a crisis well before that. Let's take a look at some of the reasons our workforce is looking a little lean, and consider what we can do about it.
Okay, so most of us recognise that we don't go into early childhood for the money, yet wages have long been a concern for our sector. If the last few years have taught us anything (and to be fair, they have taught us a lot), it's that early childhood educators are essential. During this entire pandemic, during lockdown after lockdown, they have showed up. They have cared for children. They have supported children and families isolating. They have put their own health in the back seat. Without educators, many of the other essential workers (in health, for example) would not have been able to do their jobs. And yet, wages remain low compared to many professions. There is no doubt that the opportunity to earn more money in an "easier" (emotionally and physically) job, is too great a lure for many.
While there is an obvious physical element to early childhood work (bending, lifting, being on your feet a lot, moving equipment etc), it's the emotional toll that this work takes on us that often becomes too much for many. Comforting four distraught infants at once is hard. Navigating a bitter dispute between two toddlers who want the same truck, in a loving way, is hard. Responding to the 400+ daily questions of pre-schoolers is hard. Supporting a family who has just received an unexpected diagnosis is hard. Making decisions about the health and wellbeing of a child, and having to make reports to authorities about your concerns is hard. Don't get me wrong, some days are lovely and easy and we leave with a huge smile on our face, filled with joy and wonder and feeling privileged that we get to be a part of these children's lives. Other days we cry in the car on the way home. For many, this emotional labour simply becomes too much.
**For the purposes of this article, I have used the terminology "male" and "female". I recognise that there will be other identifiers mean no disrespect or exclusion **
We are a predominantly female profession. While this may have changed a little over the years, there is still a definite imbalance and lack of male educators within the sector. This might be an unpopular thought, and perhaps even a generalisation (stay with me though) but I have noticed over the two decades that I have been in the sector, that much of our workforce is female and aged between 20 and 40 years. For a lot (not all) of females in that age bracket, the time often comes to have children of their own, and despite changes to family dynamics and gender roles within families and households, many women who have their own children, may not return to the workplace either at all, or at the level at which they previously did. This means that we either lose an educator, or find ourselves looking for an additional educator to support a part-time or job-share position. There can be some real benefits to part time positions and job sharing, however it definitely can create a challenge, when there is a shortage of educators to begin with.
To suggest a solution to the problem would be underestimating the size of the problem. This is not something that will be solved overnight and with one response. This is a challenge that requires many solutions and a lot of time. But there are a few things that we can do to help:
Again, this situation didn't just appear overnight, and it won't be solved overnight either, but with a few small efforts, we can contribute to change.
It's not simply enough to record that there is a hazard - there needs to be a process to report that hazard.
The terms "hazard" and "risk" are used quite a lot in early childhood. But what do they really mean, and what is the difference?
Risk assessments can sometimes feel onerous. There are a multitude of experiences, hazards and events that require risk assessing in our early education and care services and the paperwork can feel a little overwhelming at times. But, we want you to think about risk assessments as being a positive thing.