Early Childhood Australia (ECA) was invited to participate in the federal government’s Jobs and Skills Summit in Canberra from 1–2 September 2022 to represent the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector. Ahead of the summit, we surveyed ECA members and the wider early childhood profession to seek people’s perspective on the most significant issues in ECEC, and the contribution ECEC makes to Australian society.
The Jobs and Skills Summit came at a busy time for the ECEC sector. This year, Early Childhood Educators’ Day coincided with a national day of action to highlight the need for better pay and conditions for early childhood educators. ECA acknowledges the need to both celebrate and act on behalf of the ECEC sector. It brought together 142 cross-sector leaders, with the goal of addressing our shared economic challenges and recommending immediate actions and opportunities for medium and long-term reform.
In just over a week, ECA surveyed more than 700 professionals in the sector who told us about the issues they face daily.
The need to improve pay and conditions through long-term structural reform was clearly the highest priority of the sector in our survey—followed by an immediate wage increase, support to include children with additional needs, and promoting the value of the profession.
Mental health strategies often start with the learning that we cannot pour from an empty cup. The economy and communities that we serve have reaped the rewards from our work and commitment to improving our sector. Well the cup is empty and its time for government to provide the mask. Professionals in this sector have been underappreciated, undervalued and underpaid for far too long and now the sector is unable to meet demand due to a diminishing workforce. [sic] (Survey respondent)
It is clear that the ECEC sector is under great pressure. When asked how it feels to work in ECEC at the moment, the top three responses were ‘exhausted’, ‘stressed’ and ‘happy’. Almost 70% of respondents said they feel exhausted daily. However, of those who feel exhausted daily, almost four out of five people said they regularly feel happy, over half regularly feel excited, and almost half regularly feel hopeful, indicating that they find working with young children to be satisfying and rewarding. One respondent said they feel ‘exhausted but hopeful that I can make a difference’.
ECA CEO Samantha Page says the pandemic has exacerbated underlying issues within the sector.
This level of workload stress is untenable and arises from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years, the unprecedented rate of staff turnover which ranges from 20% to 60%, as well as the number of positions vacant which are currently at an all-time high of over 6,000 nationally.
The survey highlights that although there are issues in the ECEC sector, there is still hope to balance the scales. Our survey respondents ranked a range of measures to address workforce issues. The highest priority was given to improving pay and conditions through an immediate wage increase and long-term reforms to address gender wage equity and recognition of the value of the work. There is a strong consensus that early childhood teachers deserve pay parity with teachers in the school system, while diploma and certificate qualified educators deserve professional wages comparable to other professional sectors.
My husband works in the mining sector and has . . . for three years. He earns over $200,000 per year. I have over 20 years’ experience in ECEC and earn $50,000. We both have a diploma qualification. (Survey respondent)
A highly skilled and passionate workforce is essential to helping children get the most out of life. The first five years of life are essential for children to develop a lifelong love of learning. Everyone benefits from early childhood education and care delivered by a qualified, specialised and fairly-paid workforce.
If pay grades increase, the quality of educators will increase. Quite a number of passionate educators are leaving their roles or not even entering the industry because the wage is almost not livable in todays [sic] society. (Survey respondent)
Educators’ resilience is on display during the current workforce issues. Even though educators are exhausted, they can find joy and hope in the important work they do with children. Structural change is needed to better support the workforce and return the joy of educating and caring for young children to the profession.