With staff shortages, a growing concern in the early childhood industry, the Carmicheal Centre from the Australia Institute have developed a detailed report with 10 recommendations to overcome the current shortages the industry face. Some recommendations include: Prioritising ECE as an essential public service, providing universal ECEC to all Australian preschool-aged children, conversion of casual, contract-based, and temporary staff to permanent and direct employment, Lifting minimum qualification standards for new ECEC workforce entrants, and TAFE should be the primary provider of foundational education and training for ECEC careers.
Early childhood services are suffering from a shortage of staff as occupations have more than doubled since the pandemic to over 6,000 positions nationwide and the National Skills Commission has added ECEC educators and teachers to its list of priority occupations facing acute skills shortages. Poor job security, conditions, and compensation are major factors in this staffing crisis: these unappealing aspects of the work drive many workers into other fields.
According to research, Meeting Skills Shortages in An Expanding ECE Industry, Australia’s ECEC system is underdeveloped relative to the needs of both working parents and employers. The system provides formal group care for only around one-third of children under 5 (compared to coverage rates of up to 90 per cent in the most developed ECEC systems in other countries). Lack of access to quality, affordable care is a major cause of sub-optimal participation of women in the labour force in Australia: with both labour force participation and incidence of full-time work for women far lower than in other peer industrial countries.
By reconstituting a public, universal, and high-quality ECEC system, we can reverse the damaging consequences of our current market-driven, highly privatised, and thoroughly inadequate ECEC system. But to achieve this, the government must play an active regulatory, planning and funding function, in collaboration with industry stakeholders. Increasing the certainty that a publicly funded industry maximises benefits for the children it is supposed to serve means first removing the profit motive from service provision.
This can only be achieved by fully funding the training and development of a regular pipeline of trained ECEC workers, led first and foremost by greater investment in publicly funded, TAFE-delivered education and skills, new mandates for workforce qualifications and staffing levels, and health and wellbeing quality frameworks that neutralise cost-competitive approaches to delivering ECEC services.
Specific policy measures which would help to attain this vision include the following:
Recommendation #1: An industry strategy and workforce plan that prioritises ECEC as an essential public service.
The federal government should develop a national ECEC industry policy that commits to adequate levels of funding for universal ECEC provision, complemented by a strategy to build and retain highly skilled workers, and that regulates the industry to maintain high standards of service provision. The federal government would work with individual states and territories and ACECQA on specific plans to roll out a universal ECEC system (optimally matching the scale and quality of the Nordic countries) by the end of the decade, through funding commitments, workforce planning, mapping of education and training systems and requirements, and the establishment of stringent regulatory mechanisms that would shepherd the ECEC system towards sustainable goals.
Recommendation #2: Federal government funding increased to provide universal ECEC to all Australian preschool-aged children.
As part of this national ECEC strategy, the federal government must recognise that over the long term, far greater investment will be needed to create and sustain an adequate ECEC system for Australia. The development of a universal system will require funding for an expanded workforce and more enrolment places, gradually making ECEC available to all preschool-aged children over the remainder of the decade. A truly universal system would require funding commensurate with the percentage of GDP spent by the Nordic nations (1.66%), phased in over several years (preferably by 2030). In that way, future generations of Australian children receive free, universally provided ECEC.
Recommendation #3: Prioritise meeting projected ECEC workforce demands with the conversion of casual, contract-based, and temporary staff to permanent and direct employment.
The federal government should recognise that a major contributing factor to the erosion of standards of quality and service in ECEC has been the systemic insecurity and low pay that characterises too many ECEC jobs. In turn, these conditions are perpetuated by the growing privatisation of ECEC services that benefit shareholders and executives, with a diminishing share of revenues going to work of revenues going to workers who in many cases are hired on temporary or casual contracts. Increased funding to ECEC should thus be contingent on converting existing casual and contract-based employees to full-time or part-time permanent positions. This will address pervasive insecure work, create fairness where staff are able to benefit from improved conditions (i.e., leave entitlements, consistency in pay), and help establish certainty in staffing numbers for ECEC centres. This will have flow-on benefits for preschool-aged children (who are shown to receive better care from more stable, experienced staff), and stronger staffing teams capable of achieving and defending quality standards in education and care.
Recommendation #4: Increased funding to Vocational Education and Training (VET), with 70 per cent of VET funding allocated to TAFEs.
To support essential services like ECEC, the federal and state/territory governments should increase funding to VET to help secure viable education and training pathways for Australians seeking careers in many essential services, particularly human and caring services (like ECEC). For many Australians, TAFEs provide good quality education outcomes and strong bridges between school and work that afford many opportunities for stronger employment and better lives. Furthermore, TAFE is the backbone of VET, where it provides services either free of charge, or at low cost to the public. TAFEs are especially important in rural and remote regions where for-profit providers are less likely to offer services. Therefore, a minimum of 70 per cent of funding to the VET sector must be allocated to TAFE, ensuring that most of the public funding for the education and training of many Australians is delivered through these public institutions to achieve the best possible education and training outcomes – and the best preparation for labour market opportunities, since services are delivered to match locally specific labour market conditions.
Recommendation #5: Channel VET and TAFE funding into education and training programs that support workers in feminised industries.
Additional stipulations in VET funding arrangements should also address the gendered labour dynamics that disadvantage women in feminised industries like ECEC. The current federal government’s support for VET disproportionately favours ‘masculinised’ industries, like manufacturing and construction; moreover, these industries benefit from higher incomes and better conditions than the care sector. Thus, VET funding (including for TAFEs) should favour expanded education and training programs in care industries. This will help ensure that these programs provide exceptional standards of qualifications, promote beneficial career pathways for women (with jobs that provide better pay and conditions), and improve women’s labour force participation and hours of work.
Recommendation #6: TAFE should be the primary provider of foundational education and training for ECEC careers.
As ECEC is an essential public service that must be publicly funded and delivered, so too should the education and training of ECEC workers be publicly funded and delivered by TAFE. The federal government should require that TAFEs provide the main education and training for ECEC workers, reducing the need for private VET providers. TAFE must be recognised as the foundational provider of education and training for careers in the ECEC sector, as well as the provider of choice for workers seeking further education or training (prior to tertiary education). The TAFEs also serve as a ‘safety net’ for ECEC workers who may face limited labour market opportunities at their current level of qualification.
Recommendation #7: Lift minimum qualification standards for new ECEC workforce entrants.
The federal government should lift the minimum qualification levels for employment in ECEC from Certificate III (existing requirement) to Certificate IV. This would also require setting benchmark employment standards and compensation at levels commensurate with that level of qualification. This would also provide ECEC workers with advanced skills and knowledge and help more staff to attain higher qualifications, including degree-level education. Once again, the TAFEs would be instrumental in delivering Certificate IV-level qualifications and any other Diploma-level credentialing prior to workers embarking on further education pathways.
Recommendation #8: ACECQA’s National Qualification Framework (NQF) should be matched to standards set in publicly delivered ECEC services.
The federal government should mandate ACECQA to evaluate existing ECEC services based on the best performing public services in the industry. This would set higher baselines for educator-to-child ratios, minimum skills levels (Certificate IV), and the provision of high quality approved learning frameworks that support universal access to child learning and development programs.
Recommendation #9: Piloting new models of not-for-profit, cooperative, and worker ownership and participation in providing ECEC services in underserved communities.
The government should support the piloting of democratically organised and worker-driven ECEC services in remote and rural regions of Australia that are currently underserved by Australia’s existing ECEC system, as well as in urban areas that presently experience lack of access stemming from socio-economic disadvantage. This would involve developing a program of services in collaboration with other stakeholders (including unions and TAFE institutes) to identify education and skills requirements, project workforce needs, mobilise funding, and attain regulatory approvals to ensure such services meet new minimum NQF standards in their design. Efforts to expand ECEC supply through various not-for-profit institutional forms could assist local communities in accessing additional ECEC services, with due attention to the specific needs of local communities currently disadvantaged due to geographic, cultural, or socioeconomic conditions. Not-for-profit, co-operative, and worker-owned pilots could also help to address labour market issues and provide education and training pathways into careers for local ECEC workers. This approach emphasises the importance of public goods being provided directly by community stakeholders, and the need to de-commodify the delivery of human and caring services.
Recommendation #10: A stronger role for unions in evaluating ECEC services, identifying workforce needs, and providing direct input to ECEC curriculum, education, and training development.
At all stages in the establishment of a universal ECEC system, including design, implementation, evaluation, and regulation, workers and their representative unions should be consulted as equal partners alongside the government, the ECEC industry, TAFE institutes and community stakeholders. Workers must be consulted as the most direct, and most knowledgeable actors in identifying workforce education, training and skills needs, and be directly involved in translating this industrial expertise into outcomes designed to sustain the ECEC industry. Representative sector councils, representing all industry stakeholders and tasked with setting standards for universal ECEC provision, would feature a minimum representation of union delegates. They would contribute to policymaking that considers workers’ direct input into the development of curriculum, regulations, education and training, and quality frameworks.
To read the full details of the report: Meeting Skills Shortages in An Expanding ECE Industry