Early learning centres and pre-schools across the Eurobodalla are crying out for trained educators with almost 400 children under the age of five on waiting lists for care.
Since opening its doors in November 2021, the Sunshine Bay Early Learning Centre has been operating at 50 per cent capacity due to a critical shortage of early childhood educators in the Eurobodalla region.
Owner of the Broulee Early Learning Centre and the new Sunshine Bay facility Lisa Dixon has struggled to attract trained senior staff, despite advertising locally and out of the area.
She believes more university training opportunities, supported by the government, would attract more young people into the child care industry and encourage existing and returning mature-aged staff to up-skill to fill the growing need for senior teachers.
“There’s a shortage of fully-trained early childhood teachers across the sector and we need to find ways to fill that hole,” she said.
“We need to sit down and talk to our educators about what would make it more attractive for them do their uni degrees and up-skill.”
Due to the staffing crisis, Ms Dixon said the Sunshine Bay centre can only cater to 50 children between six weeks and six years of age, despite being licensed to accommodate 100 youngsters. The Broulee facility is at full capacity with a waiting list – and it is not alone.
Eurobodalla Shire Council community development manager Kim Bush said almost all local centres have staff vacancies, with some forced to close their doors at short notice due to COVID-related staff shortages.
Representatives from early learning centres, health services, non-profit organisations, council and members of parliament have joined forces to address the emerging crisis in the Eurobodalla.
Ms Bush said lower-than-average pay rates for qualified staff, no locally-based training options, a national operating framework placing additional administrative burden on centres and a lack of health and support services were highlighted at a forum held in Batemans Bay last month.
An action plan has since been put in place, which includes advocating for government-subsidised wages, more collaboration across the industry and reinstating early childhood courses at the local TAFE campuses.
After seeing the writing on the wall, Ms Dixon said she began “building her own workforce” and has hired 20 trainees over the past two years across her Broulee and Sunshine Bay centres.
“We saw this was going to happen so we’ve put a new trainee in each of our rooms every 12 months, and they have senior mentors who spend time nurturing them,” she said.
“Last year’s trainees are doing their diploma this year and will then go on to do their bachelor’s degree.”
Ms Dixon is calling on the government to provide opportunities for staff to study at work because, she said, finding time to study while working full-time is difficult, particularly for women with young children.
Her hands are tied and she feels terrible turning families away but until she can find more trained staff, Ms Dixon has no choice.
“Families are frustrated, but we’re doing the best we can,” she said.
After dealing with the bushfires and COVID-19 lockdowns, Eurobodalla families are struggling and the stress of finding childcare is just another hard knock.
“We’re dealing with parents and children that are very stressed about everything they’ve seen and gone through over the past two years,” Ms Dixon said.
Ms Bush said the impact goes far beyond mums and dads scrambling to find care for their youngsters.
There are flow-on effects to the mental health of staff, children’s well-being and development and the local economy.
“Research is clear that a child’s early learning environment plays a key role in their development and those who go without access to early education are automatically behind when they start school,” she said.
“If you invest in the early years you get a better community outcome long-term – instead we’re continuing a cycle of disadvantage.”
Federal Member for Gilmore Fiona Phillips agrees child care is a “huge issue” and a “significant problem for families” in the Eurobodalla.
She said part of the solution would be for the government to offer free TAFE training in areas with a skills shortage.
“We need to be training more early child care educators locally,” Mrs Phillips said.
“Many children are missing out on going to pre-school because there aren’t enough places available and parents may be missing out on work opportunities because they don’t have access to child care.
“If they haven’t got family members or someone to rely on to help with care, it’s a big problem.”
Ms Bush said Eurobodalla Council will be “demanding action and advocating to anyone who will listen”.
“We’re calling for more government investment in our most precious assets – our children – and for universal principles so everyone can access early learning,” she said.