Finding a place for a baby or toddler at an early childhood education facility can be extremely difficult.
Georgie Dent, chief executive of parenting body The Parenthood, said families could wait three or six months depending on where they live and which services were in the area.
“It’s not uncommon for families to put a child’s name down, almost even before their baby’s born if we’re trying to secure a position. And even when that happens, it’s still not guaranteed a spot,” she said.
The government’s childcare subsidy expands in July, but the sector is concerned it won’t be able to meet increased demand.Credit:Ryan Stuart
Better access to early childhood education is one of the government’s core policies. The so-called “cheaper childcare” policy will from July 1 increase the availability of subsidised care to a wider cohort of families. That policy, at a cost of $4.7 billion over four years, is designed to increase women’s workforce participation by making childcare more affordable.
But the sector worries it will just increase demand at a time when the early childhood education system is already struggling to cope with surging demand as families return to the office and as centres face an unprecedented staff shortage.
Sam Page, chief executive of Early Childhood Australia, said the prospect of greater subsidies come July 1 has families thinking they might be able to afford an extra day of early childhood education than previously.
“The difficulty is that there is a workforce crisis, a very severe workforce crisis and services are finding it difficult to fully staff their centres. And so that is a brake on meeting that increased demand,” she said.
Estimates on the number of vacancies in the sector vary from 6500 to up to 20,000. Australian Bureau of Statistics Data shows vacancy rates in education and training, which covers early childhood education, were 43.4 per cent higher in November last year than at the start of the pandemic.
Page said it would be difficult for the government’s objectives from raising the childcare subsidy to be realised if workforce shortages weren’t addressed. For that to happen, she said the government needed to sit down with employers and unions to work out a pay increase.
Wages in early childhood education start at a little over $21 an hour and go up to $36, depending on qualifications and length of time in the industry, according to the award, and the average wage tends to be around $25 an hour.
Page said there were many workers who had left the sector who could be enticed back with better pay.
“But those wage increases need to be quite substantial. And they need to be backed by government funding,” she said.
Goodstart Early Learning is one of the country’s largest early childhood education providers, with 649 centres across the country. The group’s advocacy manager, John Cherry, said while a third of Goodstart’s centres did not have staff vacancies, the rest were either struggling a little or a lot to attract enough workers.
Cherry said it was a combination of burnout after three years of pandemic pressure and pay — even Goodstart’s above-award wages of about $27 an hour is not enough to compete with other industries.
“Then they look at the pay packet and say they just can’t do it anymore,” Cherry said.
Competition for any workers still in the sector is extreme, he said. Cherry estimates the country will need an additional 9000 workers to meet the increased demand from July.
Opposition spokeswoman for early childhood education Angie Bell said the government needed to focus on delivering more childcare places because centres were already capping enrolments. She said that the Coalition’s key concern with the $4.7 billion package was that a percentage of it was at risk of being eaten up by price rises as the sector lifted daily rates to cover increasing costs.
”The key issue is that centres won’t be able to deliver the demand increase come July 1 and we know that puts pressure on the workforce and the sector which is already under pressure,” she said.
A spokesman for the Minister for Early Childhood Education Dr Anne Aly said the government understood how vital early childhood educators were.
“We’re taking action, working with all state and territory governments, and collaborating with the sector and workforce to find ways to improve the situation,” the spokesman said.
He said the government recognised more needed to be done to attract, retain and support those workers, and the plan for the national children’s education and care workforce strategy, published in September outlined 21 actions that would do so.
The government is also focused on training, the spokesman said. Around 1500 of the 20,000 additional university places are for early childhood teachers, and the fee-free TAFE places are focused on areas of skills shortage, including early childhood education.
Clarissa Sumner manages an early childhood facility outside Melbourne. She’s worked in the sector for 12 years, and said she’s always encouraging people with a passion for working with children to get into the job.
“It’s the most rewarding thing you can do. Unfortunately, the pay does suck,” she said.
Sumner, who is also a member of the United Workers Union, was recently told by a bank while applying for a mortgage with her partner that her salary was below the poverty line.
“It’s a hard thing to hear, especially when you work full time, you work really hard, and it is a really important job,” she said.
“Science says it’s important. We know it’s important. We just need the government to know it’s important enough to fund it.”
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