Four steps to fix early childhood’s workforce crisis

As programs grow and governments invest more, human capital must keep up

In recent years, growing evidence about the importance of early childhood development — from its impact on children’s life chances to the future of national economies — has forced governments to recognise the issue as a priority, and to bolster their services for young children.

With this rapid expansion, however, a critical challenge has emerged: support for the people who work to promote young children’s healthy development, from early educators to healthcare professionals, is lagging behind. Countries around the world are struggling to recruit, retain and train these early childhood workers, who tend to suffer from low pay and heavy workloads in return for little recognition.

“One of the biggest determinants of program quality is the workforce,” said Mark Roland, Program Director at Results For Development, an international development NGO. A systematic review of 111 studies from 40 countries, for example, found that higher-qualified staff were more likely to achieve better cognitive outcomes for young children.

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If policymakers and practitioners want early childhood programs to achieve their full impact, they need to build and maintain a quality workforce. So what steps should they take? Here are four crucial areas for action.

Make the profession attractive

A key aspect of building a workforce is making early childhood work appealing, both as a daily job and a long-term career.

Poor wages and working conditions, for example, often lead to a high turnover of staff which can be incredibly disruptive.

In many countries this has led to an early childhood workforce crisis — in Australia, each year around one in five early childhood educators are thought to be quitting for other careers, many citing the levels of pay which lag behind teachers of older children.

Increasing compensation is one obvious solution, which not only improves employee retention but can also boost the quality of their work.

In Siaya County, Kenya, for example, where there are around 200,000 children under five, the government employs the help of local community health volunteers. In 2015 the governor introduced a modest monthly stipend, and “just by providing some compensation,” said Roland, “there appear to have been some improvements in performance,” such as an increase in the number of home visits and referrals they make.

Build long-term careers

Money is just one part of the picture, though. Members of the early childhood workforce need more recognition for their work and pathways to progress in their careers.

In Finland, for example, pay is still modest compared to other professions, but careers in early childhood education are held in very high-esteem culturally. This has been encouraged by the high levels of training required to work in early childhood positions — all of which need at least a three-year qualification. As a result, around 90% of trained educators stay in the profession throughout their career.

When conditions are difficult, keeping workers motivated can become even more important. In India, the NGO Mobile Creches provides early childhood care at construction sites, predominantly serving vulnerable migrant populations.

“If governments want to see returns on their investments, they must devote resources to ECD workforce”

To reach these children, the caregivers have to work in “unimaginable” conditions, said Sumitra Mishra, Mobile Creches’ Executive Director, often traveling huge distances to work at sites with very limited facilities.

In spite of these challenges, nearly a third of Mobile Creches staff have stayed for 20 to 30 years, said Mishra. She puts it down to a high-quality motivational program and opportunities for professional growth.

Simple things make a difference, she said, like a monthly check-in when caregivers come to the office to dance, sing and catch up with colleagues, as well as occasional team retreats and annual awards.

And in the longer-term, ambitious caregivers are motivated by the opportunities to develop professionally: they can gradually gain promotion to supervisory positions, from running a creche to eventually training other supervisors.

Train staff continuously

In building training for the early childhood workforce, said Roland, we need to ask “what is the level of requirement that will allow for quality nurturing care… and how do we complement that with continuous, relevant pre- and in-service training?”

Mobile Creches usually hires less-educated women from the community, said Senior Manager Neeru Bhatnagar, which means their training methods and processes have to be relevant to the context.

Rather than classroom teaching, caregivers are given practical hands-on instruction with lots of visual aids, and initial training lasts just 12 days followed by six to nine months of close on-the-job guidance from supervisors.

Long-term coaching like this has been linked to enhancing the quality of early childhood services across multiple contexts.

In this system of “incremental training and supportive supervision”, as Mishra describes it, these supervisors play an integral role.

Caregivers are often from difficult backgrounds and “bring baggage of their own lived experience into this work,” Mishra explained, “whereas work with children has to be about love, nurturing care, joy and play.” Most of their supervisors have done the work themselves, which means they act as effective mentors, providing both practical and emotional support.

Another reason why continuous training is so important is that workers’ roles can change. “Oftentimes a single point of contact is asked to do more and more,” said Roland, especially as evidence grows about the importance of holistic early childhood development.

In Peru, for example, a home-visiting program called “Cuna Mas” has saved thousands of children from stunting, but an increase in responsibilities means community health workers are struggling to balance enormous workloads – for which they receive just a small stipend – with the need to earn other income.

Win institutional buy-in

Finally, in order to build a quality early childhood workforce at scale, you need institutional support and a coordinated approach.

“In a lot of contexts”, Roland said, “recognition of the importance of the early childhood workforce or the political will to act is really lacking”. This can severely undermine efforts to recruit and retain workers.

In India, for example, there is no professional recognition of early childhood work at the policy level, said Mishra, which makes it “harder to employ younger, aspirational, more educated women,” who are vital in assessing Mobile Creches’ work.

This contrasts distinctly with Singapore, where the government has created “specific pathways and incentives to support early childhood personnel,” said Roland, such as giving subsidies to mid-career professionals to update their qualifications. Government spending on preschool more than doubled from 2012 to 2017, and the country even created a dedicated early childhood ministry to improve and harmonise standards across the system.

Achieving these kinds of breakthroughs elsewhere in the world will take strong advocacy, and policymakers need more information about what works. Practical research and data about the early childhood workforce is severely lacking in many countries, due to poor monitoring and evaluation, which restricts the ability to make effective decisions.

Without giving this issue the attention it deserves, early childhood programs may not have the impact desired. “If governments want to ensure a good return on their investments,” said Roland, “devoting sufficient resources to the early childhood workforce is essential.” — Jack Graham

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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