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'Parents can't work': childcare staffing crisis threatens Sunshine Coast economy

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The Sunshine Coast economy will continue to be sluggish due to the knock-on effects of a critical staffing crisis within childcare, experts warn.

On the Sunshine Coast alone, there’s an estimated 200 job vacancies in childcare that operators are struggling to fill with appropriately qualified staff – even with offers of bonus payments and above award wages.

Nationally, there is a shortfall of 10,000 staff. This figure is expected to rise dramatically to 39,000 in six months time.

Pam Maclean, the Sunshine Coast representative of the Australian Childcare Alliance Queensland, and operator of Out & About Care & Education Centres, noted that local shortages mean reduced capacities of childcare centres and, therefore, parents who need places for their children are being turned away.

Strict ratios of staff to children mean that without the required staff numbers, the available care places on offer for children is also reduced, sometimes quite dramatically. A shortage of one staff member in the 3-5-years-old classes, for example, means 11 less places.

“Our parents are working parents, so if we can’t provide care, they can’t go to work, and so all other businesses will be impacted horrendously,” Mrs Maclean explained.

“It means the economy across Australia, and locally, is going to struggle because our centres support a lot of small, medium and large businesses, who employ people.”

Childcare operator Pam Maclean warns of a crippling shortage of workers. Picture: Richard Bruinsma

Mrs Maclean said the crisis was the result of many factors, including graduates in early childcare education (from age 0 to grade 3) being lured instead to primary school teaching, which offers higher award wages as well as 12 weeks’ annual leave.

She noted one parent, for example, who contacted 30 childcare centres only to have no luck finding places for her children so she could get to work.

“I know of some centres on the coast that have had to close rooms; if we wanted to look at it in real terms, for example, a room of 22 children a day – now, different children attend on different days, so over a week that might be 45 children – so that’s 45 parents who can’t go to work,” she explained.

“So that’s 45 businesses out there who’ve lost a staff member, and not all families have support networks of grandparents or someone else to help.”

Mrs Maclean suggested the answer was to encourage universities to run specialised childcare courses, which is starting to occur, and also to allow high school students to complete the Certificate 3 in Childcare so they’re work ready upon graduation.

“There are not enough people coming through in the pathways for careers from school or universities and so on,” she said.

Childcare centres on the Sunshine Coast have been forced to reduce child numbers because of a lack of staff.

“It’s been a struggle for a while, but Covid – like it has for everybody – affected us badly, it was out of left field, it made things even more difficult.

“(Childcare) is made more difficult because we have the legislation talking about the qualifications, the ratios we have to meet – we’re the only ones that have those ratios – so that’s what makes it even trickier for us, but the absolute bottom line is no economy can recover if childcare can’t function.”

Required staff-to-children ratios are: 0-2 years old – 1 staff member for every 4 children; from 2-3 years old, 1 staff member for every 5 children; for 3-5 years old, 1 staff member for each 11 children. There are also minimum requirements for staff numbers who have Early Childhood Teacher qualifications.

Mrs Maclean encouraged anyone with childcare experience and also those interested in a career “would be welcomed with open arms”‘, and to contact a childcare centre to discuss employment.

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