Childcare sector ramps up calls for higher wages as pre-schools forced to turn kids away
There is an alternative to hitting the taxpayer over this. There are ferocious regulations governing childcare. Reduced regulation would allow more people to enter the field and reduce the numbers required to run a childcare service
More Australian parents could soon be forced to stay at home and not go to work as childcare centres face staff shortages.
Childcare operators fear the situation will get worse next year when the government's new childcare subsidies begin.
Community Early Learning Australia CEO Michele Carnegie said the policy, which she supports, will make more parents want child care and put pressure on an already struggling system.
"If [job] vacancies continue to grow at this rate, we estimate that there will be over 10,000 vacancies by July 2023," she said.
"This [the new childcare subsidies] will see an increase in demand for child care that simply will not be matched by workforce supply."
The government says the subsidies will ease cost of living pressures and help the economy, because cheaper child care will allow an extra 37,000 parents to take on a full-time job.
However Ms Carneige asked how that figure could be reached with the childcare worker shortage.
"The risk is that parents are going to be subjected to really long waiting lists, they're going to be subjected to the vulnerability of not knowing whether or not today's the day when their child is going to be able to access early education and care," she said.
"This is absolutely going to be impacting their ability to fully participate in the workforce."
Goodstart Early Learning, which is Australia's largest provider of early learning and care, has been struggling to recruit staff in recent years.
Its advocacy manager John Cherry said a lack of workers stops parents from being able to hold down full-time jobs.
"Every [staff] vacancy that we have is up to 15 families effected. The flow on economic consequences is profound," he said.
Narelle Myers is the director of Bermagui Preschool on the far south coast of New South Wales. She said the sector has dramatically changed over the past few years. "I've been there for over 20 years, we have always had long term staff," she said.
"But that all changed in 2020, we were impacted by bushfires, then COVID… also the housing crisis… we have actually had a turnover of about 36 staff in the last two years."
Mr Cherry said his centres were turning away children because they do not have enough workers to care for them.
"This has never happened before in Goodstart's history," he told a parliamentary inquiry earlier this week.
"Over the last two years up to 80 and 100 centres each week are enrolment capped because we can't find enough staff.
"It is mad and crazy for an organisation like ours, desperate to increase our occupancy, that we can't increase our occupancy because we can't find enough staff," he said.
United Workers Union executive director of early education Helen Gibbons said these stories were all too familiar.
"We have a leaky bucket in early education," she said. "We are struggling to attract people to work in the sector, but we're also having people leave daily."
Wages a key problem
Early childhood educators have long citied low pay as a reason for leaving the sector. Ms Gibbons said wages must be addressed to attract and keep more workers. "The elephant in the room is the wages of early educators, they're appallingly low."
Ms Myers said she pays her staff above award rates but still can't compete with other industries.
"We have lost so many staff who have gone to work in the primary school system… a lot of our staff have left to care for clients on the NDIS and they are getting paid over $60 an hour to work with one client," she said. "We can't compete with that."
Ms Gibbons said the government's proposed changes to multi-employer bargaining could be game-changing.
"I think the sector is really embracing the idea of multi-employer bargaining and I've heard a number of providers talk really positively about it," she said.
"The only question mark is, how quickly can we get it done because we want to see educators' wages lift as quickly as possible."
Both Goodstart and Community Early Learning Australia want the government to provide a wage subsidy in the short term.
Ms Carnegie said better pay is needed before the new childcare subsidies are introduced in July to avoid more workforce shortages.
"This will impact on retention of our existing qualified workforce and encourage more people to choose to be part of an incredibly rewarding career in early education," she said.
"An increase in remuneration will need to be funded by government, otherwise the cost will be passed on to parents through increased fees.