OPINION

Childcare crisis: Skills shortage will shortchange Aussie kids

DIRE: Kids will miss out if the skills shortages being experienced in childcare are not properly addressed. Picture: Shutterstock
DIRE: Kids will miss out if the skills shortages being experienced in childcare are not properly addressed. Picture: Shutterstock

There are very few positive things you can derive from a pandemic. Holidays have been thwarted. Social plans cancelled. High-streets collapsed.

But as awful as this experience is, and as bad as it sounds, this disruption has actually been somewhat of a blessing in disguise for my family. And I imagine, in some ways, it has been for many other families too.

Like many working parents, my pre-pandemic life was chaotic. Early mornings, later nights and endless travelling.

Work-life balance was quite literally a foreign concept. I'm not proud of it, but I considered it part of the trappings of running a global childcare software company.

Somewhat ironically, the one who suffered the most from my absenteeism was my amazing daughter, whom I very rarely got to share breakfast with in the morning or read a book to at night.

Since lockdown, that pace of life has changed. With planes grounded and the office closed, I, like many parents, have been forced to retreat into the family home, and set up a makeshift office.

As a result, I am spending infinitely more quality time with my daughter. And that can only be a good thing.

But as we edge closer to resuming 'normal' life, one in which parents will inevitably have to return to office or site-based work in some capacity, there are concerns an expected surge in demand for childcare places could exacerbate a worker shortage in the early childhood sector.

These fears aren't unfounded. A new report from the National Skills Commission has identified a national skills shortage in the childcare industry, and a strong future demand for skills in this sector.

Since the COVID crisis began, many childcare providers have been suffering from staff shortages as workers across Australia left the profession when parents started pulling their children out of care, and retreated into their homes.

Even as the government introduced its temporary free childcare package, centres have struggled to get the staff back.

Our data from Xplor Technologies shows that up to the week ending August 29, occupancy rates for all types of childcare services are down 12 per cent, to 68 per cent capacity across the whole country.

The sharpest drop was in Victoria, where occupancy has fallen by 18 per cent.

While this isn't a cause for immediate concern, as restrictions ease, many centres run the risk of being overwhelmed, particularly in the more populous suburbs of New South Wales, the ACT and Victoria.

In fact, elsewhere we are already seeing occupancy creep up to pre-pandemic levels.

For example in Queensland, where COVID outbreaks and restrictions have been less severe. High staff turnover in the childcare sector has been an enduring problem.

Early childhood educators cite low pay, feeling undervalued and increasing time spent on paperwork as just some of the reasons they are leaving the profession.

Another challenge is that many brilliant educators only serve children in a specific centre, while most children still do not have access to them.

Despite all the advancements in remote and hybrid working models, the childcare sector has been slower to adapt.

At this critical juncture, we can't afford to lose any more resources. Whenever an educator leaves the sector, it's a loss for children that affects their learning and well-being.

However, technology can help with scaling this challenge.

From my experience, working in both my mother's childcare centres and supporting service providers across the country, new tools and software can provide means for early childhood workers to work digitally, as well as provide centres an exciting way for them to recruit, that doesn't necessarily rely on locality.

This is undoubtedly a new approach for the sector and it is working to give educators more flexible teaching arrangements for the first time, which not only helps boost retention, but also enables the industry to be more elastic to meet demand.

The quality time I've been able to spend with my daughter is irreplaceable.

But when the time inevitably comes that I return to work and the trappings of office life, I will be safe in the knowledge that she will be looked after in the utmost professional care by our unsung heroes.

Let's make sure we support them, as much as they selflessly support those closest to us.

For I fear that if we don't, it will only be our children who truly lose out.

Mark Woodland is CEO of education at Xplor Technologies.

This story Childcare crisis: Skills shortage will shortchange Aussie kids first appeared on The Canberra Times.