Day Cares Crying Out for Child-Care Workers

Many working parents depend on having quality child care. But what happens when there aren't enough workers to look after their children? Across North America, there is a growing shortage of day-care workers. That means plenty of opportunities for those interested in a child-care career.

However, some say the shortage is so bad that day-care centers are closing because they can't find enough workers.

In response to this crisis in child care, educators and employers are working towards improvements in working conditions, pay and recognition.

"Child-care centers are being forced to close down because of a shortage of child- care workers," says Lynn Burgate. She's the executive director of a child-care society. "There are less child-care choices for parents, which results in lengthy waiting lists to access services."

There is a particularly strong shortage of day-care workers for infants and toddlers.

"Due to the low ratios [of caregivers to children] that infants need, the high cost of infant care has limited the availability of center-based infant care," says Patty Dilko. She is a professor of early childhood education. "Most infants are cared for in family child -care homes or by relatives."

A lot of worker turnover and uncertainty is a bad thing when it comes to child care. When a child doesn't consistently have the same caregivers and teachers, he or she can't form a trusting relationship, says Rachel Theilheimer. She's a professor of early childhood education.

"The adults in the room cannot get to know the children and plan curriculum accordingly," Theilheimer explains. "The families can't feel secure in the knowledge that someone they trust is caring for their child and communicating about their child's day with them."

When turnover is high among caregivers, the effects are seen in a child's behavior and lack of attachment, says Dilko. Turnover can also lead to high stress levels and burnout for the program's teachers.

Reasons for the shortage

We all know quality child care is important, and insiders say there are plenty of jobs available. So why don't more people pursue a career in child care?

"The main factor behind the low numbers of people going into child care as a career is money," Theilheimer says. "Unfortunately, child care does not pay what it should."

Where Burgat lives, for example, living expenses are high and potential child-care workers are seeking higher-paying jobs in other parts of the country.

The job is also physically demanding, and often the parents and children they work with have many challenges, Burgat adds.

Poor working conditions and the perception that this career doesn't have a lot of social status are other reasons for the shortage.

"Poor working conditions may mean that a teacher is responsible for many children without sufficient back-up support to take breaks or plan curriculum," Dilko says. "It may also mean that the environment is not well-maintained and that there are insufficient supplies to provide a high quality experience for children."

In addition, many child-care positions are viewed as being a "dead end," unless the individual pursues an administrative position, Dilko adds.

Michelle Pittman owns an educational consulting company. She says some parents, political leaders and even child-care workers lack a strong belief in and commitment to the importance of those early years of life. More people need to be aware of the importance of this developmental stage.

"Scientists have shown us through brain development research that the first three years of life are the most critical for social and emotional development, as well as physical, language and cognitive development," Pittman says.

"Working with people at this critical time allows you -- teachers, administrators, and parents -- to be a part of wiring their brain in a healthy way that will affect them for the rest of their life."

What's being done

An increase in both pay and status is essential to attract and keep people working in the field, says Theilheimer. For a start, there is a need for more training programs.

Day-care centers are also looking at ways to improve working conditions, including pay.

"Centers are sharing staff," Burgat says. "Child-care centers are starting to look at raising wages and offering benefits to child-care workers."

In the U.S., the Worthy Wage Campaign is an effort to raise visibility and compensation for child-care workers. In addition, an increasing number of states have instituted early childhood teacher certification.

"This certification acknowledges that early childhood education is a separate field from elementary education, one that requires special expertise," Theilheimer says. "The certification also leads colleges of education to prepare early childhood educators along with candidates for other certifications."

Some states are working specifically to address caregiver qualifications and turnover, including in California.

"Although the initiatives vary from county to county, they are primarily a system that provides stipends to teachers who commit to continued education and staying at their place of employment," Dilko says.

The field of early childhood education is both expanding and professionalizing, Dilko says. Despite the challenges, the profession is experiencing a tremendous period of growth and transformation.

"Because of the great demand for new teachers and administrators, there are many opportunities for advancement," Dilko says. "While we know that funding for early education is not sufficient, there are initiatives at the local, state and federal levels that aim to address the challenges that we face daily. It's an exciting time to be involved with early childhood education.

"This time of change presents many challenges and many more opportunities for ambitious, loving, intelligent and educated professionals and paraprofessionals to participate in the transformation. We are increasing professional standards, and as a result, we will be expecting and receiving professional wages."

Future opportunities

As more moms and dads work outside of the home, child care will remain a growing field for both men and women.

As our society continues to redefine what it means to be a nurturing father and a male role model, Dilko says, there's more space for men to express these skills as a professional caregiver and teacher.

"If a man is qualified to have children, he should also be engaged in providing care to children," says Jean-Yves Plaisir. He's an assistant professor in teacher education.

"A man can cultivate the disposition and acquire the skills to help him attend to young children's various needs."

Along with low pay, other obstacles to attracting males into the field include cultural traditions and social pressures, as well as a man's general lack of confidence, practice and training in providing care to young children, Plaisir says.

The rewards for men working in the field could be numerous, Plaisir says, ranging from male educators providing attention, warmth and care to children of both genders to male and female daycare workers sharing responsibilities, perspectives and contributions together.

"There are certainly opportunities for both men and women," Theilheimer says. "Children benefit from seeing men and women collaborate equitably and successfully as teachers and caregivers."


The National Association for the Education of Young Children
For information on U.S. training programs and resources

National Association for Family Child Care
Dedicated to promoting quality child care

Early Childhood
Information on the early years

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