Developing the child care workforce: Understanding 'fight' or 'flight' amongst workers

By Tanya Bretherton Research report 9 July 2010 ISBN 978 1 921413 93 3 print; 978 1 921413 92 6 web


The early childhood education and care sector in Australia has long been characterised by low skill/low pay jobs. The current policy environment, however, may offer scope for the sector to toward a path of skill growth. This report, based on case studies of four early childhood education and care providers, investigates how innovative employers are overcoming challenges in the sector to improve workforce development.


About the research

Higher qualifications in the early childhood education and care workforce are a central focus of new policy developed by the Council of Australian Governments. With new staffing requirements for early childhood education and care to be implemented through the National Quality Framework by 2014, it is timely to look at how child care providers develop their workforce.

The sector has traditionally been a low skill–low pay environment. Despite the challenges faced by the sector, some employers have employed successful strategies to develop the skills of the workforce. Based on case studies of four early childhood education and care providers, this report investigates how particular employers are overcoming the low skill–low-pay challenges in the industry to improve workforce development.

Key messages

  • Employers in this study are attempting to combat staff turnover—seen as a universal challenge for the sector—through careful recruitment and skill development. Two different recruitment strategies have been used:
    • the recruitment of higher skilled staff
    • the recruitment of less skilled staff, based on profiling characteristics rather than qualifications, followed by training.
  • Employers argue that workers in the sector must develop a skill set which offers an understanding of both care and education. These skills are currently gained through two different career paths, with carers trained through the vocational education and training (VET) sector and teachers trained through higher education, and it is doubtful whether these two career streams could be merged.

Any move to higher skill levels in the child care industry must impact on the economic structure of the industry. Higher skills inevitably mean increased wages, which must be met through fees or government subsidy.

Readers are directed to a research overview developed from this report: Workforce development in early childhood education and care.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

The early childhood education and care sector1 in Australia is undergoing a shift in philosophy. Changes in policy are driving the industry towards a combined early childhood education and care focus, away from one only on child care. This move has implications for the skilling of the child care workforce.

This report examines workforce development strategies in the early childhood education and care sector and identifies the factors that affect the development of skills. The report explores how broad policy environments and local labour market challenges shape and influence employer choices about the development and use of labour. This research was guided by the following questions:

  • What are the key features for best practice workforce development in the child care sector?
  • What are the key challenges for employers in deploying labour in the child care sector?
  • How have best practice operators managed to achieve what others cannot, given the inherent challenges and underlying operational dilemmas created by low-cost environments?
  • What are employers’ views of engagement with the vocational education and training (VET) system, and what role, if any, has VET played in maximising productivity and quality?
  • What are the possible consequences of a best practice approach adopted on a sector-wide basis?

Quality child care systems
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) identifies a mix of indicators for quality child care (Roseveare & Taguma 2009). High-quality systems have a number of core components including: substantial public investment; public funding to develop and revise quality standards; good working conditions for staff, with opportunities for professional development; favourable child–adult ratios; and partnerships with community and parents.

The literature suggests that another indicator of quality is the level of amalgamation between care and education activities. Some systems are based on high levels of integration between these activities. In these systems (common in the Nordic region), education and care are not seen as distinct activities, but are delivered by workers qualified in both fields, and typically in one facility. Other systems (for example, the United States) operate on a distinct separation between care and education, in which children attend ‘care’ facilities in the early years to receive care from care workers, but then transfer to different facilities to access ‘learning’ provided by education workers. The literature review identifies a strong correlation between those countries identified as ‘high quality’ child care providers, and those countries with child care systems geared towards a high level of amalgamation between education and care activities. In other words, those countries with a ‘united’ policy and program focus on early childhood education and care (rather than the provision of child care alone) also tend to meet the OECD standards for high-quality providers.

The Australian system

The Australian child care sector has been characterised by low funding levels, poorly defined and fragmented notions of customer need, weak professional advocacy, and to date, limited ability to re-define work activity in a way that explores areas for developing ‘high skill’ areas of work. These conditions set the scene for skill atrophy. The depth of the challenge in child care is so great that the sector has been characterised as a low skill–low pay trap.

The current policy environment in Australia, however, may offer scope for the sector to shift from a path of skill atrophy toward a path of skill growth. The federal government has dissolved the traditional policy structures attached to child care and has re-grouped education and care activities into a merged ministry. This has steered Australia towards an early childhood education and care focus, and away from a narrow child care focus. The scope for professionalisation in the sector has also been expanded by the government’s initiatives. In particular, the government has made continuing licensing dependent on the presence of workers who have been specifically trained in the early childhood area (in both teaching and practitioner roles).

Workforce development in a challenging environment

Workplace case studies were conducted to investigate how innovative employers are responding to the challenges of skill atrophy in the child care sector. Four organisations, representing a cross-section of urban and rural sites and four different operational models (not for profit, commercial, government-owned, and community umbrella), were selected. In all cases, the employers identify staff turnover to be a universal challenge for the sector and argue that strategies to combat turnover and improve staff retention must be built through efforts to reshape the categories of skill on which the industry relies. Interviews with employers reveal two types of staff responses to the challenging conditions in the sector: finely honed ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ reflexes amongst workers. Turnover is high within the industry, and those employees who stay tend to maintain and fortify service quality, often at the expense of their own employment arrangements and quality of life (workers with a honed ‘fight’ reflex). Alternatively, the challenging working conditions and the low pay and low status associated with the work can produce a ‘flight’ reflex in other workers.

The employers at the heart of this study have successfully identified how turnover can be reduced by addressing the core reasons for fight or flight among workers. They have sought to counteract staff turnover through comprehensive skill development. Two different recruitment strategies have been used to achieve this. In one scenario, the employers are determined to recruit and retain only higher-skilled staff. In the other scenario, employers hire unskilled workers who conform to a narrow set of profiling characteristics, and then make a commitment to their training. In both of these scenarios, the employers are effectively narrowing the entry points to the industry by recruiting and selecting from niche labour pools. This approach has substantial implications for both the training sector and policies designed to shape and develop labour supply.

Much VET strategy is focused on creating entry points into the sector; yet the employers in this study indicate a high level of dissatisfaction with the quality of trained labour supplied through some of these channels. If the approach used by the employers in this study anticipates the direction of sector-wide activity, the number of entry-level positions in the child care sector will shrink, rather than grow. Among the employers we interviewed, this shift had already begun.

The employers featured in this study indicate that quality outcomes in the industry must be predicated on both education and care skills, with a specific focus on early childhood needs, in order to maintain high-quality standards in the long-term. Yet, the current training frameworks do not lend themselves well to this transition. Certificates in child care have traditionally not had a strong ‘educational’ or pedagogical focus. Equally, the sector is generally critical of mainstream teacher training because it is argued that a strictly educationalist focus does not sufficiently prepare teachers for the working environment they will face in early childhood settings. Current policy, at the federal level, does appear to recognise the need to lift the status of work in the sector in order to provide a more stable and committed pool of workers for the industry. Government initiatives are seeking to supply the sector with ‘new’ forms of workers, with measures to encourage current child care workers to upgrade their skills to a diploma or advanced diploma level, at a minimum. Support has also been given to an expansion of the numbers of university places specifically in the early childhood teacher stream. It appears the federal government is steering the sector towards a higher-skill operating model, and away from the low-skill operating base that has characterised the sector in the past. However, higher skills inevitably mean higher wages, which must be met through higher fees or government subsidy. Without government subsidy, the higher costs associated with this operating model will be passed on to parents. In turn, this could have significant economic implications, as labour market participation for many parents relies on access to affordable child care.

1 This report uses the label of early childhood education and care to describe the child care sector, in keeping with current policy conventions and industry vernacular. However, the report at times reverts to the generic sectoral descriptor of ‘child care’ for ease of reading.


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