The recent federal election put childcare front and centre of the debate. The new government is proposing to subsidise care up to 90 per cent of the daily fee. At a state level, the NSW government is looking to support all families of preschool-aged children to access early years education.
These initiatives seem admirable. Who would not want access to more affordable care or see all children receive the benefits of pre-school learning.? However, they are not without complications.
Childcare subsidies are electorally popular. However, they also drive demand for services. This is a major issue, as the early childhood education and care sector currently faces an acute shortage of trained staff.
Recently, there was media commentary that suggested childcare operators’ preference cities and large towns because that’s where they can make more money. The article claimed that operators were in a race to build centres in large communities rather than small towns. As the Chief Executive Officer of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, which operates 11 not-for-profit St Nicholas Early Education centres in both city and regional locations, I feel these claims are at worst very cynical, and at best, ill-informed.
Most operators of early childhood education and care are single centre operators. There are a few large operators, including not-for-profits. Most of the small operators are in their local communities and money is not the primary objective, children are put first.
Building an early education childhood education and care centre in a regional community is more often cheaper than in larger cities. The land is more affordable, builders are often easier to find and there is an unmet demand for care, so there are typically lots of willing customers. But there are not enough staff to run those centres and so, they are not built. It’s a human resources shortage that becomes more chronic the further you move from population centres.
To rectify this matter, many would argue that childcare operators should pay employees more money to attract them to the sector. This is a simplistic view - higher pay would need to be met by higher childcare fees, which seems to defeat the government’s intention of making care more affordable.
I recently discussed the shortage of workers in aged care with a chief executive officer of a local service. She was adamant the dignity of aging people was important but staffing the sector is just as challenging. Would higher pay resolve that shortage as well? It seems that in both aged care and early childhood education and care, there are not enough people who want to do this work. We must have the right people, not just people who are chasing money.
The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle recognised this shortage and in response, developed St Nicholas Pathways. St Nicholas Pathways operates in a range of locations and through its various programs and study options, is designed to excite and engage those in the community who are interested in exploring a career in early childhood education and care. Ultimately, our hope is that it also identifies and supports the right people to work in this very rewarding sector.
However, that’s not enough. Attracting and retaining staff to enter the early childhood education and care sector must be prioritised at all levels of government. This must be an area government gives attention. There must be further subsidies offered to operators to bolster staff wages, as well as increased opportunities for training and real support to the providers of services outside major centres. Otherwise, those families living in remote and regional areas will never have the same work and education opportunities as their city counterparts and the divide between these communities will only become greater.